City Council Votes to Bring Library Levy to Voters in August

The photogenic Central Library (Photo: MvB)

On April 9, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to put a levy before city voters August 7, 2012, that would “authorize the City to levy additional taxes for up to seven years for the purpose of supporting, maintaining and improving core public library services.” The levy would assess 15 cents per $1,000 of property value–that’s an additional $52 per year for the median homeowner.

That 15 cents adds up to a projected to raise $17 million yearly, over seven years, to help the Seattle Public Library counteract the effects of four years of budget cuts: an annual week-long closure of the whole system, over half the system closed two days per week, and significant cuts to the library’s acquisition budget (“more than 13 percent since 2009,” says the library).

It even allows the city to cut the library’s budget again in 2013, by as much as an estimated $5 million. Why would the city cut-and-fund, you ask? That $5 million would be cut from general fund support for the library, allowing the city to reallocate those monies. It’s a kind of budgetary gerrymandering, creating popular, self-funding “districts” via levy (schools, parks, libraries, roads) while allowing officials to pose dramatically with general-fund hatchets.

(Adding insult to injury, the years of budget-cutting set in just as the library had completed a $290.7-million program called “Libraries for All” that, besides helping pay for the new Central Library, paid for major infrastructural upgrades: “each of the 22 branch libraries that were in the system as of 1998 [were] renovated, expanded, or replaced; and four new branch libraries were opened to the public at Delridge, International District/Chinatown, Northgate and South Park.”)

Only an illiterate grinch would be against funding for the library, especially when, quite truthfully, demand for its services are at record highs. “Libraries support our residents looking for work, students needing homework assistance, and people who cannot afford a computer,” argued Mayor McGinn yesterday, at a levy press conference. “Our libraries are educational centers in every community and gathering places for neighborhood meetings and activities.”

Practically speaking, there’s no easy way out. The move toward reliance on levies is not new, and neither is the history overwhelmingly positive. Filling general fund budgetary gaps with perpetual levies isn’t sustainable (for one thing, as the city has already discovered, revenue can fluctuated alarmingly with property values).

Secondly, using levies as nitrous oxide for the operating-budget engines is corrosive. Officials discover that things like necessary annual maintenance can be put off, until the new money comes in. That tends to make the operating budget, over time, not fully reflective of operating costs.

As with the Bridging the Gap levy and road conditions, that accumulated delay can come with a startlingly immense price tag, when you finally get around to assessing what’s needed. In the case of Seattle streets, the real cost of fixing the roads is not politically viable. And that’s that. The new normal.

You can see this malign neglect in the state of the Seattle Public Library system’s jewel, the Koolhaas-designed Central Library, which is not only too expensive for the library to clean as often as you’d like–Windex sponsorships, anyone?–but comes with extra maintenance costs that strain the library’s resources.

Ironically, some of the extra maintenance cost is because the new-ish library is so popular with tourists, and sees so much more foot traffic. But the evident wear-and-tear in a Seattle landmark is indicative of Seattle’s tendency simply to “let itself go” when money is tight–and it’s symbolic of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that leads to perpetual levy. It’s almost always “the price of pizza,” according to advocates–but that may be the problem.

When you look at the history and number of levies Seattle relies on, we seem to be eating more and more pizza, with no end in sight.