Downtown Central Library

On Monday, April 9, the Council will vote on placing a seven-year, $122.6 million property tax levy on the August 7, 2012, ballot to support the Seattle Public Library (SPL).  The Council is likely to approve the ordinance.  This levy will restore the services that have been cut from the City budget since the recession began, protect the library from further cuts, and add funding that will take the library to a new level of service designed for the 21st century.  This means expanded collections, including electronic materials, hours that make branches more accessible for working families and school children, better technology, and maintenance that will protect the investments in our Central Library and 26 branches.

All over the country, libraries are being cut back as City governments are challenged by the recession.  In many other cities, this has led to large public protests, and City governments have responded by trying to find ways to keep libraries going.  Seattle values our libraries, and the Council has managed to avoid drastic cuts that would close branches or eviscerate services.  However, the cuts we have been forced to make have reduced the accessibility of library services and greatly strained staff and facility resources.

The proposed levy would raise $17 million in 2013 and grow by 1% per year.  The assessment would be about $0.15 per $1,000 of assessed value.  The annual cost to the owner of a residential property with the median assessed value for Seattle ($361,000) would be around $52.

Approximately 95% of SPL’s $52 million operating budget for 2012 is supported by the City’s General Fund.  SPL’s capital budget is largely funded by the City’s Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) revenues.  Both of these resources have been greatly constrained in the past four years.

Recognizing this, the Council initiated a process of researching funding options in 2010, and in 2011 continued this effort by calling for a proposal for a potential 2012 levy.  In December 2011, the Council unanimously adopted Resolution 31345, which set forth a structure, process and schedule for the development of a 2012 library ballot measure.  CB 117425 is the result of the work plan articulated in Resolution 31345 and would authorize the placement of a specific library levy proposal on the August 2012 ballot.

If approved by Seattle voters, proceeds from that levy would support the following four categories of library services from January 2013 through December 2019:

1)   Open hours and access – $26.8 million (annual average – $3.8 million)

SPL would add back operating hours at branch libraries and increase the reference services available at branches and the Central Library.  Funding would also be provided for security services and technology support.  Of the 15 branches that are currently open five days per week, 13 would gain Sunday hours and two would transition to a seven day schedule.  SPL would no longer have a week-long, system-wide closure each year.

2)    Collections – $17.3 million (annual average – $2.5 million)

The variety and depth of SPL’s collection would be increased to better meet patron demand for materials.  The collections component of the levy would also fund increased purchasing of downloadable materials, such as e-books, and more copies of popular material in print, digital, and other formats.

3)    Technology – $10.6 million (annual average – $1.5 million)

The Library would replace and upgrade computers and technology infrastructure that was purchased during the Libraries for All capital program.  Levy funding would also support improvements to SPL’s online services.

4)    Regular and Major Maintenance – $26 million (annual average – $3.7 million)

Levy funds would provide additional support for regular and major maintenance activities at SPL’s 27 buildings.  This would not include funding for any new or expanded library facilities. 

The remaining funds generated by the levy would be used to restore funding for open hours and services that would otherwise be cut in 2013 due to the City’s continuing fiscal challenges.  For more information, see



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Comment from Chris Leman
Time April 10, 2012 at 8:12 am

Unfortunately, the levy ordinance as passed by the City Council on April 9 does not provide the commitments claimed in the above statement. Contrary to claims that a vote for the levy ensures increased hours, days of the week, services, and technology, section 7 of the levy ordinance which determines the exact language to be on the ballot only states that the levy will “support library hours and services.” It doesn’t promise that there will be a single increase in hours, days, or services. Also, section 5(d) states that “these program elements are illustrative examples. The levy proceeds will be spent in accordance with the annual City budget proces for each year of the levy.” In short, if voters approve the levy as now described in the ordinance, the City Council and Library Board will have complete freedom as to whether to increase or decrease hours, days, services, and technology.

The 1998 Libraries for All bond issue was in danger of defeat by the voters until the addition of ironclad numerical allocations of the revenues and a strong, independent, geographically based oversight committee. The levy ordinance that the City Council passed yesterday similarly lacks numerical allocations or an oversight committee. It has less accountability than any property tax bond or levy proposed to voters in the last 25 years.

It is not too late for the City Council, as it did for the 1998 bond measure, to pass a resolution in the next few weeks or months making these commitments, and in doing so it can use the model of Resolutions 29846, 29952, and 29997 which did the same thing after the City Council failed to include them in the ordinance putting the 1998 bond issue before the voters. Needed are the following improvements, drawn from the March 30 Seattle Community Council Federation letter:

1. Commit that the City Council will not cut the existing level of library support from the General Fund, and that the Library Board will increase the hours and days of the week in which libraries are open. As passed, the levy ordinance would allow the Council to completely displace with levy funds the current level of General Fund support now provided to the Library, and allow the Board not to increase the hours and days of being open; it could even decrease them.

Without a City Council commitment to maintain General Fund support and a Library Board commitment to increase the hours and days of the week when the libraries are open, passage of the levy could leave the Library with no more funds or operating hours than it has today, plus the possibility that funds and hours will decline when the levy runs out at the end of seven years.

2. Include in the resolution a strong, independent, geographically based oversight committee like that for the 1998 Libraries for All bond measure. Oversight committees were in the ordinances putting before the voters the Bridging the Gap transportation levy, the Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levy, the two parks levies, the series of housing levies, and the three Families and Education levies. Contrary to claims that an operations levy doesn’t require a public oversight committee, oversight committees cover the Families and Education levy (entirely an operations levy) and covered the 1999 parks levy (partially an operations levy).

Voter-approved funding for the Library is in particular need of a public oversight committee because the City Council and Mayor and hence the voters have so little power over how the Library Board would spend the levy. A geographic system of representation for the oversight committee is particularly needed because (as with the 1998 Libraries for All bond issue) of concerns that the Central Library’s building and programs will take funds away from operations and hours of the branch libraries.

Only with the above improvements can the voters feel comfortable that the levy funds will be well and accountably spent. It is inaccurate to state that the levy has those commitments when it so clearly does not.

–Chris Leman, (206) 322-5463