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In our view: ‘No’ to Libraries

Aug. 17 ballot measure asks for more money, but the timing is wrong

The Columbian
Published: July 20, 2010, 12:00am

The most devastating economic crisis in seven decades is no time to ask taxpayers for more money, even if you’re one of the most respected, highly supported and best-run government entities in the community. Such praise of that public agency is not extended casually; it has been solidly earned by the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. But the shroud of the Great Recession leads The Columbian — for the first time in memory — to editorially oppose a local ballot measure.

On the Aug. 17 primary ballots (which will be mailed July 28), FVRL will request a levy increase to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That would mean a tax increase of about $20 per year to the owner of a $250,000 home. We recommend a “rejected” vote for two reasons, the most significant being timing, as stated in this editorial’s first sentence. But the second motivation for our opposition to the levy lid lift is almost as compelling. It has to do with need.

Most government agencies these days are struggling fiercely just to keep their financial heads above water. Some of them, such as our state Legislature, have increased some taxes just to maintain the status quo or in many cases to avoid further devastating cuts in vital services and programs. That’s not exactly the case with this request from the 13-library district that serves all or parts of four counties. According to (click on “levy info”), the new revenue would pay for “additional books and other materials” and “district-wide restoration of library hours that were lost in 2009.”

In other words, FVRL’s request is not a frantic effort just to maintain the status quo; it is to fund growth, an ill-timed request in 2010. Already the library district has been blessed with ample growth in facilities and funding. Voters in 2006 approved a $43 million bond issue that includes a $38 million downtown library scheduled to open in about a year and a recently opened Cascade Park Community Library. And the library’s budget has grown from $15.6 million in 2006 to $16.9 million this year. Ask private-sector budget writers if they would like to have seen that kind of growth in the past five years.

These numbers and ballot results from recent years lead us to believe that FVRL has been treated more than fairly by taxpayers during the Great Recession.

Library leaders argue that growth is precisely what has led to this ballot measure. Circulation increased 8 percent last year and is up 14 percent this year. They also maintain that cuts from last year’s $17.7 million budget have included a 10 percent reduction in staff positions, plus reduced hours at seven libraries. FVRL Executive Director Bruce Ziegman told us that further reductions in staff and hours of service could result if the Aug. 17 ballot measure fails.

The FVRL board thoroughly researched this issue, and has a couple of indicators this effort will succeed. A districtwide poll by the political action committee Citizens for Better Libraries indicated 62 percent of respondents would support a library levy lid lift. Also, the board members likely believe history is on their side. In 2005, 59.5 percent of voters supported a library ballot measure that required supermajority approval, and a similar measure passed the next year with 63 percent approval. (This year’s levy lid lift requires only majority approval.)

That was then; this is now. The lingering economic crisis leaves us with just two words in response to FVRL’s request: bad timing.