Op-Ed: It’s Okay to Vote “No” on the Library Levy
I realize this is an inflammatory statement to make in Seattle, where we annually joust for the crown of most literate city. But there is, I think, a case to be made for voting against the Seattle Public Library levy on the August 7 ballot. There are compelling, pressing reasons to vote for it: some are made here at Libraries Yes! Clearly, the library needs money from somewhere if it’s going to serve the people flocking to it.
But I am going to re-argue that the levy doesn’t solve the problem that it purports to solve, that this method of funding exacerbates a larger problem with city governance, and that the levy could over its seven-year lifespan make things worse.
“WHEREAS, The Seattle Public Library was established in 1890…,” reads the City Council’s ordinance, placing this levy on the ballot, before going on to make the point that, “the Library has no dedicated funding source to keep operating budgets stable or keep pace with increasing maintenance costs.”
Yes, the library has been around around for 122 years without a “dedicated” funding source — besides, you know, the City of Seattle. During downturns, paradoxically, its budget is cut while usage skyrockets. So says the official History:
The Depression pummeled The Seattle Public Library. Jobless men seeking refuge crowded into the Central Library. Those looking for work or diversion snapped up library books at unprecedented levels, sending circulation past 4 million for the first time in 1932. Yet, at the same time, Library budgets shrunk precipitously, forcing layoffs of employees and termination of programs.
The Great Recession has also pummeled The Seattle Public Library. “Library use jumps in Seattle area; economy likely reason,” ran the 2009 Seattle Times headline. Yet, its “capital budget has been cut by 50 percent since 2009,” notes Cienna Madrid in The Stranger, “with more cuts currently projected for 2013.”
Here is where everyone looks enviously at the King County Library System, with operations funded, since 1942, primarily by a property tax levy. Since 1977, the levy rate is limited to no more than fifty cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Its budgets have increased throughout the recession. (Capital improvements are paid for, or not, via bonds.)
So, a property tax levy would solve all of Seattle Public Library’s problems, wouldn’t it? No. KCLS is a separate legal entity from King County government. It “owns” its money. SPL’s budget is approved by the City of Seattle. SPL does not “own” the money from this new levy. That means that despite this being a “library” levy, there’s an extraordinary amount of leeway in what the money can be spent on. The Seattle Times points out the temptation to cost-shift:
Funding library operations through levies opens the door to an egregious type of cost shifting. Libraries already have money going to them. If the voters add new money, the City Council can take out some of the old money and spend it on something else. In fact, it plans to do that. The levy would raise $17 million next year, but $5 million of it would replace money diverted to another part of government. So it’s really a seven-tenths library levy.
The City Council’s ordinance also contains this: “Section 4. Application of Levy Proceeds. Unless otherwise directed by ordinance, Proceeds shall be deposited in the Library Levy Fund.” Which means that levy proceeds can be directed elsewhere by a City Council vote. Trust me, if King County could get at the King County Library System’s money with a vote right now, there’d be a lot more unemployed librarians offering to organize your collections for food.
After listing “core” services that SPL needs help funding, the ordinance goes on to say: “These program elements are illustrative examples. The levy proceeds will be spent in accordance with the annual City budget process for each year of the levy.” Got that? There is no guarantee here. The same City Council that has hacked away at the SPL budget the past few years, and which has been “instrumental” in creating this levy, will remain in charge of how the proceeds are spent.
(Further reading: “Do We Really Need a City Council?“)
I don’t believe it is a worst-case scenario to imagine the Council will raid these monies over time — more than the $5 million the Mayor and Council have already announced they will take, I mean. I think it’s more likely than not. This levy is proposed as a temporary measure, but there is no reason to suppose it would be. (Do you have another housing bubble in your bag?)
This is corrosive, because levies are a blunt funding instrument. They depend on a vote. They depend upon not too many other levies being on a ballot. They depend upon a lot of things, and if they fail, then there’s not much of a Plan B.
The SPL levy would place the library in an even more precarious situation at the end of seven years, with far less of its operating costs paid for through the General Fund, and no certainty of levy renewal. If SPL is going to be funded by a property levy, then SPL should be in charge of the proceeds.
If the city thinks it knows best how the money should be spent, then it should do what its leaders are elected to do, which is to allocate services from the General Fund. The city has a General Fund revenue problem, approaching Titanic proportions, that so far they have failed to come to grips with. They should get started, rather than play kick-the-levy-can down-the-road.