Libraries cut pay, ask for levy hike

Children Taylon Ericson, Elizabeth and Hailey Foster, and Jayda and Kelly West and their parents listen as librarian Teresa McElhiney reads “A Boy and His Bunny” Monday at the Oak Harbor Library.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Children Taylon Ericson, Elizabeth and Hailey Foster, and Jayda and Kelly West and their parents listen as librarian Teresa McElhiney reads “A Boy and His Bunny” Monday at the Oak Harbor Library.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

Unlike most organizations and agencies struggling with budgets, Sno-Isle Libraries’ cash crunch has little to do with the downturn in the economy.

Library officials, however, proposed a solution to the funding problem with an eye on the ailing economy. The board of trustees went through a round of budget cutting before deciding to ask the community for a levy increase on the Nov. 3 ballot.

“Our last ballot measure was in 2003,” said Mary Kelly, director of community relations and marketing for the library system. “We are limited to a 1 percent revenue increase each year, but our expenses have risen by well over 1 percent a year.”

The ballot measure would increase the library district’s levy rate by 9 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. That would mean the owner of a $300,000 home would pay $27 more a year for library services.

In all, the library board of trustees cut just over $1 million from the 2010 budget. The round of belt tightening includes a 3 percent salary reduction for the six highest paid employees and three other senior administrators. The library director’s salary, for example, will decrease from $158,724 to $153,962 a year. The salary cuts will save $31,519 a year.

In addition, the salaries for all other staff was frozen, the materials and equipment budget was slashed, more than a dozen vacant positions were eliminated, and the replacement of the library computer system was delayed until 2011.

If the ballot measure fails, library officials will have to slash $2.5 million from the 2010 budget. Kelly said it would be a system-wide reduction affecting all the libraries, including those in Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

Any changes at the Oak Harbor or Coupeville libraries would have an impact on an amazingly high number of patrons.

Librarian Mary Campbell said an average of 900 people a day visit the library in Oak Harbor. Those people check out an average of 45,000 items a month, from books to movies.

“We have an especially large number of preschool families and a very active preschool area,” Campbell said. “We love that about our library.”

In Coupeville, an average of 250 people a day visited the library before construction for the renovation and expansion of the library began this summer. The temporary library is at the Au Sable Institute on Parker Road. But even at that location, patrons checked out more than 7,000 items in August.

The Sno-Isle Libraries serves more than 656,000 residents in Snohomish and Island counties.

According to Kelly, about 95 percent of libraries’ funding comes from the property tax levy, which is currently at 31 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Because of a Tim Eyman initiative, the library is limited to a 1 percent increase each year unless voters approve a levy increase. Increases in labor costs for the 475 full- and part-time employees and other expenses have consistently outpaced revenue.

The slowdown in home building is also pinching this year’s $38.4 million budget. New construction provides the library system with extra revenue each year, but it’s expected to decrease by at least $500,000 in 2009.

If the levy passes, the library system will receive an additional $4.8 million a year.

“It will stabilize our library funding,” Kelly said. “We don’t expect to ask for another levy for another five years.”

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