Cuts, or levy increase, needed to address $2-million libraries deficit

Facing a $2 million shortfall in 2019, the Sno-Isle Libraries Board of Trustees is deciding on Monday whether to cut back its budget and reduce services or place a ballot measure in spring 2018 to maintain current offerings.

The latter would mean asking voters to consider restoring 9 cents to the library levy rate for a total rate of 47 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value on an April 24, 2018 ballot that would take effect in 2019. If approved, Sno-Isle Libraries could continue its current level of service, support and educational programming for all 22 community libraries in Island and Snohomish counties — including those in Clinton, Langley, Freeland, Coupeville and Oak Harbor.

If the board decides to cut the budget, potential changes include reductions in open library hours by four hours weekly, Sunday closures, cuts to employees, fewer purchases of library materials such as music and movies, and longer wait times for print and digital books.

Library users, which number more than 740,000 in the region, would see the changes continue beyond 2020, according to Sno-Isle Libraries’ website.

Nicole Midkiff, president of the Friends of the Clinton Library, hopes the board opts to pursue a ballot measure.

Midkiff said the community has historically been supportive of libraries.

“We think it’s a positive thing and hope our voters will support it,” Midkiff said.

Ninety-eight percent of the library district’s funding comes from an ongoing operations levy, which was approved by voters in 2009, set at 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. But funding and maintaining services is made difficult as costs rise.

Budget management and reserve funds have staved off the need for budget cutbacks or support from taxpayers until now, according to Jim Hills, public information manager for Sno-Isle Libraries.

The majority of the library district’s budget is allocated for salaries, benefits and the maintaince of services.

Employee cutbacks, as well as reduced hours and fewer materials purchased, would be inevitable if the board opts to trim its budget.

On its website, Sno-Isle Libraries provided an illustration to show which combinations of cuts could meet its goal of reducing the budget by $2 million.

Reducing open library hours by four hours weekly at most of the 22 community libraries would be the biggest cost saver at $1.4 million, while closing libraries on Sundays and purchasing 45,000 fewer items saves a combined $2.2 million.

If reductions were to occur, additional support from “Friends” groups would likely be needed, Midkiff said.

The Friends of the Clinton Library currently helps pay for programming and covers all rental costs for the Clinton Community Hall.

The Friends group also buys furniture for the library, pays for the Whidbey Reads program and funds extra librarian training in excess of what Sno-Isle Libraries provides.

Similarly, the Friends of the Freeland Library provides additional funding to sponsor business programming.

Of South Whidbey’s three Sno-Isle Libraries, the Freeland Library is the only one open on Sundays.

Clinton Library Manager Debby Colfer, who has 19 years of experience working for Sno-Isle Libraries, said she is aware of a number of customers who travel from Clinton to Freeland to use it on Sundays.

Typically, about 120 people use the Clinton Library on a daily basis for everything from studying to checking out reading materials.

It’s also a hotspot for social gatherings, Colfer said.

“I think every library on South Whidbey is a really critical social place for other people to interact,” Colfer said.

“In Clinton, they’re just aren’t that many gathering places here.”

Colfer expressed optimism that the board will choose to place a ballot measure at the Friends of the Clinton Library’s annual monthly meeting on Wednesday night.

Coincidentally, the property tax increase back in 2009 was nine cents.

Hills said the promise to voters at the time, which he remembered as being a “very dark time economically,” was that a levy wouldn’t return for at least five years.

Hills said the expectation would be the same this time around if the board opts to go that route and voters approve it.

Current projections show another levy wouldn’t be needed until 2026.