Local View: Library levy will fill major need

Demand for services has risen as economy has headed south

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Seventeen years. That’s how long it’s been since Fort Vancouver Regional Library District last went to voters with a request to increase its operating levy rate. It’s been that long because the district has been a careful, conservative steward of taxpayers’ money. As The Columbian stated in a recent editorial, the library district is “one of the best-run government entities in the community.”

Living within our means — The library district and its board of trustees have taken the approach that, in hard times like the current recession, the library takes its share of cuts along with other public agencies and struggling households. That’s why the library district was one of the first agencies to make substantial service reductions in 2009, eliminating ten percent of its staff positions, closing seven libraries an additional day each week, and making deeper cuts to an already lean budget.

The library district has taken numerous other steps to keep spending within revenue constraints while maintaining great library service in the three-plus counties we serve. We’ve purchased books, magazines, DVDs and CDs at a rate consistently below growing demand. We drastically curtailed books-by-mail service. We employ a collection agency to recover missing books and uncollected fees. We severely cut staff training expenditures. We’ve provided no raises, with the highest-paid staff taking pay reductions. We restricted the number of checkouts and holds allowed. We instituted patron self-checkouts for more effective use of available staff hours. And, with the help of the library foundation, we’ve used grants and partnerships to help fund critical programs such as Summer Reading and educating new parents about the importance of reading to their babies for healthy brain development.

The right time to let voters decide — The board’s philosophy of sharing the burden of economic hardship explains its decision not to pursue the option of a one-percent increase in 2010 property tax revenue that could have been secured without voter approval. Instead, the board accepted a 0.8 percent decrease in revenue and chose to defer to voters the question of whether to shore up library funding in a time of growing public need.

The need is indeed great — It’s no surprise that demand for library services increases significantly in difficult economic times. People who can no longer afford Internet access at home come to the library because it’s often the only place they can use computers at no charge. The unemployed get help preparing résumés, searching for work and filling out online-only job applications. Families that have had to cut back on vacation and entertainment expenses have discovered no-fee library programs and the recreational value of reading. Checkouts are up 14 percent this year as people rediscover the library.

Of course, the same economic forces that now make the library more critical than ever to the vitality of our communities also make it a difficult time to ask for a levy increase. This is true even for an increase as small as the proposal on the Aug. 17 ballot to lift the library’s levy rate by eight cents per $1,000 assessed property valuation. This is about $16 a year for a $200,000 house.

What’s the downside if the levy doesn’t pass? Unfortunately, it will go beyond purchasing fewer books and continuing to operate with the reduced library hours implemented in 2009. Without the additional operating revenue the levy measure would provide, there will be more service reductions, including further reduced hours at the new main library when it opens in 2011. Adequate staffing for this library must, by law, be paid for out of operating revenue, not the construction bonds Vancouver voters approved in 2006.

Fort Vancouver Regional Library District has done all it can within current revenue constraints to provide our communities with the library services and resources they need now more than ever. It’s now up to voters to decide whether to restore library services or to accept further erosion of those services.