Library district braces for new cutbacks

Days, hours at branches unaffected, but layoffs loom

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: August 11, 2011, 7:35 PM

 

As Southwest Washington property values continue to tank, Fort Vancouver Regional Library District leaders are poised to adopt $1.25 million in spending cutbacks in the system’s 2012-13 budget.

District officials are preparing to lay off employees at library branches and the district headquarters, scale back professional services and capital improvements and permanently retire the Clark County Bookmobile.

What they won’t do: Trim library branch service days or hours, just months after they were restored with aid of a property tax levy lid lift approved by voters last year.

That tax measure followed a round of service reductions made in early 2009.

Anticipated property tax revenue in the four-county district — which supplies about 95 percent of library funding — is just shy of $21 million for the 2011-12 budget cycle.

For the 2012-13 cycle, estimated property tax revenue is $19.1 million: a decline of about 9 percent.

Falling property values have pushed the library tax rate to its maximum 50 cents per $1,000 limit allowed by Washington state law.

Any further drop in total assessed property directly slices FVRL’s property tax funding (unlike locally approved school operating levies, where tax rates are not capped).

The remainder of the $1.86 million funding gap would be covered with use of current library reserves, and savings from consolidating leased office space back into the main district headquarters on East Mill Plain Boulevard, home of the old Vancouver Community Library.

The district announced the pending changes following a board of directors workshop on Monday.

A detailed 2012-13 budget proposal will come before the board at its regular Oct. 10 and Nov. 14 meetings, which will include public hearings. A final board vote is expected on Nov. 14.

Holding steady

Board members and FVRL Executive Director Bruce Ziegman made it clear they have no interest in rolling back the service hours/days reinstated May 1, nor the push to boost book, audio and other collections inside branches — both major selling points of the tax measure that eked out a narrow victory in August 2010.

At least, not immediately.

“We are committed to retaining as long as we possibly can the full schedule of reinstated library hours, plus the enhanced book budget,” Ziegman said.

It’s a bitter pill, coming on the heels of the opening of the flagship Vancouver Community Library last month. That building, and a new Cascade Park Community Library branch opened in 2009, were funded by a $43 million construction bond tax measure approved by voters in September 2006. That construction bond money could not be redirected to meet operating budget shortfalls, then or now.

And, deeper trouble could lie ahead. FVRL anticipates a further $916,000 decline in property tax revenue by 2013-14, if values don’t rebound.

“We may be forced to consider closing one of our (13) libraries in 2013-14 in order to retain an acceptable level of service at the remaining locations,” Ziegman said.

By then, it will be someone else’s problem: Ziegman, 63, has already announced he will retire Oct. 31, a decade after assuming the district’s top job, following 11 years as assistant director.

Operations Director Patty Duitman will serve as acting executive while the board conducts a national search for a replacement.

Bad timing?

Since plummeting property values would soon have pushed the FVRL property tax to the 50-cent cap, anyway, a question arises: Was it poor timing to run the levy lid election in 2010, in the process expending political capital (and election dollars)?

Unfortunate turn, yes. But there are no regrets, Ziegman said.

By receiving voter approval, FVRL earned a one-time, $3.3 million boost in local property taxes in 2011. Without raising the lid, its tax increase would have been much smaller — by law, limited to 1 percent growth (plus any new construction valued added in the taxing area, lean pickings these days).

The library district tucked away $662,000 of the $3.3 million bump into “rainy day” reserves it soon will tap. The rest went into restoring library service and purchase of new best-selling books, e-books, downloadable music and other collection items the public had shown a thirst for, Ziegman said.

“We think it was worth doing, absolutely,” he said. “It allowed us to reset the bar … to get started in a variety of things. If we hadn’t run the levy, we would have just limped along, the new Vancouver library open (only) five days a week, no new books.

“We did not anticipate property values would continue to decline. Conventional wisdom (in early 2010) was values would flatten out,” Ziegman said. Now, FVRL will essentially “give (the $3 million) all back” in the next two years, he said.

Bottom line, the library district was nearing completion of new buildings that should serve Clark County for decades to come, and the chance came to enhance customer service, he said.

“You’ve got to take the long view; operating revenue will go up and down,” Ziegman said. “We have to live with it, like everyone else.”

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.