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Library levy goes to voters

Library page Ileana Monahan shelves books at the Oak Harbor library. The library will be able to maintain current services if the levy passes. - Cynthia Woolbright
Library page Ileana Monahan shelves books at the Oak Harbor library. The library will be able to maintain current services if the levy passes.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Absentee ballots are out for the Feb. 4 election on the Sno-Isle Regional Library levy increase, so it’s time to make a decision.

Sno-Isle library folks are optimistic about the election, which they characterize as a measure to restore the library system’s levy to its usual rate of 50 cents per $1,000 assessed value. That’s $100 a year in property taxes for someone with a $200,000 house.

The Sno-Isle levy is currently at 44 cents per $1,000. Obviously, that’s $88 a year for that same house. Library officials like to point out that it’s just a difference of $12 a year.

“It is not a new tax,” said Sno-Isle Library Director Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, “but it is, however, an increase.”

The proposed increase isn’t meant to fund any new-fangled library stuff. It’s about maintenance. Woolf-Ivory said the increase, if passed, will allow the library district to continue to offer current services.

The library system has to have the election to restore funding because of Initiative 747.

Under state law, library districts are allowed to maintain a regular levy rate of up to 50 cents per $1,000, which was where the Sno-Isle levy was at until the year 2000. But levy rates slip over time as assessed values increase. The total amount of money that the library system collects remains the same, but becomes a smaller percentage — or levy rate — as home and property values increase.

In the past, a library district could bring the levy rate back up to 50 cents without going through an election. But I-747 put a halt to that. The initiative limits annual tax increases to 1 percent unless more is approved by the voters.

Of course, Sno-Isle could just increase the levy by 1 percent a year without an election, but that’s well below inflation and would never make it to the 50 cents per $1,000 level ever again.

The levy increase, if passed, would bring an additional $2.4 million into a system with 20 library branches, including ones in Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Freeland and Clinton. Langley uses Sno-Isle services but contracts for them, thus Langley residents will not be voting in the election.

Woolf-Ivory said the library system’s total revenue for 2003 is over $21 million, which comes from property taxes, city contracts, grants and a small amount from the timber tax.

The libraries are definitely popular. Last year, nearly 213,000 visits were made to the Oak Harbor Library, according to Woolf-Ivory. The busiest month was February, when the door counter tallied over 21,000 folks.

Last year nearly 47,000 visits were made to the Coupeville Library. The Freeland Library had about 78,000 visits.

The levy only needs a simply majority to pass. If it does pass, the levy will be restored on Jan. 1, 2004. But Sno-Isle officials explained that the levy rate would only be in effect for one year. In 2005 and after, the rate would likely drop again.

Which could mean more costly elections. Which brings up a fiscal downside to I-747. The election will cost $700,000. Woolf-Ivory said the library system may need to hold another election in just three or four years, depending on inflation and growth.

Registered voters in Island and Snohomish will vote on the measure, though people who live in cities that contract for services — including Langley — can’t participate in the election.

If the levy rate increase doesn’t pass, library officials warn that it would have a real impact on the library system’s ability to maintain the current service. Without the increase, they say there will likely be longer waits for popular materials, fewer new titles, fewer magazine and newspaper subscriptions, less computer access, longer lines at checkout counter, fewer special programs and / or reduced library hours.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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