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With focus on equity and access, here’s the book on Seattle’s $200M+ library levy proposal

The Seattle City Council will hold a public hearing Thursday evening on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan for hiking the Seattle Public Library levy up to over $213.3 million in property taxes over the next seven years.

The new proposal, which first needs to be approved — and possibly modified — by the City Council before before voters get to weigh in in early August, would replace the city’s 2012 levy of $123 million, which was fairly easily approved by voters and expires at the end of this year.

“While Seattle’s voters have historically supported our library system, I don’t take their support for granted,” said  Debora Juarez, who chairs the council’s Select Committee on the Library Levy.

The money under the mayor’s plan would increase access to all of the Seattle Public Library’s 26 branches, sustain and raise investments in technology, expand literature purchases, and continue maintenance.

“From story time to summer learning programs to adult learning classes, our libraries advance equity, education and opportunity for all who call Seattle home,” Durkan said in a statement to CHS. “If we are going to build a city of the future, then we must build the libraries of the future, too. By renewing our shared investments in The Seattle Public Library, we can lift up the places where communities come together, open up doors to learning, and make Seattle a more equitable place to live.”

An overwhelming majority of the 2019 plan — $167.4 million, adjusting for inflation — would be used to continue services funded by the existing levy.

The biggest portion of the plan is $67.5 million over the life of the levy for increased access to the library. High Point, International District/Chinatown and South Park branches would get additional morning and evening hours and four other branches — Delridge, NewHolly, Green Lake and Wallingford — would be open Fridays. The levy also adds one hour at all locations on Sundays, shifting openings from 1 PM to noon, at no incremental cost.

Another $8.3 million per year would be used under the new levy for collection ventures, most of which would continue investments made in 2012. Included in this aspect is an emphasis on the acquisition of books on world languages and increased access to local history resources.

One of the most impactful planks of the mayor’s proposal could eliminate overdue fines for checked out library materials, which would cost $8 million over the next seven years. Patrons who owe more than $15 are blocked from checking out library materials, a policy that tends to hurt people with less money more heavily.

18% of accounts at the Capitol Hill branch are blocked, for example, with an average balance of $7.82, while the nearby Montlake library has the lowest block rate and lowest average balance in the city. Meanwhile, south Seattle branches, such as NewHolly and Rainier Beach, have 37% and 36% of library accounts blocked, respectively.

In addition, $55.7 million over the life of the levy, which would last through December 2026, would be used for maintenance, including reducing the risk of injury in the case of an earthquake through seismic retrofits, which would cost $13.8 million for three locations identified as high-risk.

Finally, $4.2 million per year would be earmarked for replacing and upgrading technology, such as routers, printers, and computers, as well as paying for major technology system upgrades. 29% of patrons at the Capitol Hill branch use computers, compared to 48% at the Chinatown/International District library.

The council can change the mayor’s proposal before sending it to the ballot and previewed some additions that could come up in a Monday committee hearing.

Lorena Gonzalez hopes to add library programming for children under 3, which are attended by nearly 107,000 people in total. SPL is gathering information on this idea to see how much it may cost while Mike O’Brien has proposed adding an extra open hour for all branches Monday through Thursday, which would cost $5.6 over seven years, according to a council-staff memo.

Other possible changes being considered by the council include a $6.1 million proposal to use part of Seattle City Light’s new Denny Substation in South Lake Union for a non-traditional library space, which could possibly include programming or a pick-up space, and a $2.6 plan for adding air conditioning and elevators to the Columbia City, Green Lake, and University branches.

The public hearing on the proposal takes place starting at 5:30 PM Thursday in Council Chambers at City Hall. The levy has another scheduled committee April 17 and could have a vote from the full council April 22.

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10 thoughts on “With focus on equity and access, here’s the book on Seattle’s $200M+ library levy proposal” -- All CHS Comments are held for moderation before publishing

  1. I would support alternate, non monetary, means of paying down your library fines, but not the elimination of late penalties all together. If that aspect remains I won’t support this levy.

  2. I agree with CD Neighbor, as a regular lender from the library, what other incentive is there for some to return books in a timely manner. The wait for some books can be weeks.

  3. We can look at the data from other library systems and see that eliminating punitive fines will not impact hold pick up times. There’s data.

  4. This was my reaction too, at first. But once you dig into it, there is so much more to this story.

    The Library is already partially fine-free. Many in Seattle – especially the more affluent – already have fine-free borrowing because they are able – technologically and financially – to access electronic or e-materials which are a very fast growing proportion of all borrowed materials and incredibly expensive to libraries. The same is true for people who served via the bookmobile.

    There is a bunch of research about this trend from more than 50 fine-free libraries in the nation. Two are nearby: the Kitsap County and Sno-Isle Library systems. Libraries that have eliminated fines have found that late returns have not increased, more materials are returned and most importantly people come back to the library and use it – that’s the whole point.

    Why is it that the Library has to use late fees in order to raise funds to pay for library operations? This disproportionally impacts those who can least afford to pay those fines. Other library systems report that even the fear of a fine is enough to keep many people from using the library. The guilt and shame people fee over library fines create a negative connotation with libraries and drives them away.

    SPL only started to impose fines on kids books as a revenue grab during the recession. Given the dramatically increased use of fine-free e-materials, using fines as a source of library operating revenues is an unsustainable anyway. This levy proposal solves that while at the same time achieving greater equity.

    Don’t be short sighted. If this thing fails to pass, 25% of the Library’s funding will be gone and will be the kiss of death for one of the best library systems around.

    • Who says the penalty has to be monetary, or raise any money at all – I’d love to see an option offered in time – have a $15 fine? Spend an hour volunteering and ‘pay’ it off. That would actually get people involved then wouldn’t it? I simply need to be reassured it won’t be chaos….

      I see that other ‘fine free’ libraries aren’t truly fine free – late notices are still sent, borrowing privileges are still suspended and once items reach a certain time overdue they are considered to be lost and a bill for the item issued. If they want my support for this levy I need a further explanation of exactly what they intend. Will it be like that?

      Also, people who use e-resources just, in essence, pre pay the ‘penalty’.. If a $15 fine stops you from borrowing books, a $15 e-reader (yes you can get one that cheaply) prevents you from getting fines. And, then you don’t return stuff late, because it becomes impossible…. when I read a book on an e-reader, it returns itself when it’s due, whether or not I want it to, whether or not I’m finished with it.

    • Return your crap on time and you won’t have to pay. Why is that so hard?…..why did this discussion have to turn to rich vs poor. Its about responsibility. If you’re late returning your loaner’s then, you should have to pay.

      • I get part of it – people who don’t have money do have a disadvantage under the current system. If they bump up against the fine limit they lose their privileges and may not be able to get them back, whereas someone for whom $15 isn’t a problem, simply pays their way out, which is why I’d be fine with an alternate means of getting yourself squared. Let people use the resources they have – be that money, increased self control (ie. making absolutely sure you return things on time), time – volunteering, etc. But simply releasing people from the consequences of their actions isn’t, for me, the right answer.

      • whysodifficult, it’s *always* about rich vs poor because money buys access and privilege, and can remove consequences. A $5 fine is no big deal to some people, who may even view paying the fine as a fair cost of access to library materials, for as long as their library must rely on late fees to fund their operations.

        The same people who don’t have much money often don’t have much in the way of spare time either. So they fear late fees as a consequence of struggling to find the time to return items before they are late.

        And if someone is short on time, how are they to volunteer to pay off their library debt, as CDNeighbor suggest? What happens if they don’t, does it roll back into a monetary fine?

        The data from fine-free libraries suggest that the responsibility issue is well-covered by suspension of borrowing privileges.

      • If they have time to read a book or time to watch a movie they should have time to work off a fine for an hour or so – it’s not like I think it should be complicated or drawn out or difficult physical labor or anything.

        And it’s not like you get thrown out of the the system for nothing… you need to accrue more than $15 worth of fines to get suspended, so you have to lose something – which you’d have to pay for under *any* system, return something really late- like a month late- which gets you kicked out of ‘no fine’ systems anyway, return a whole bunch of somethings late, or be a habitual late returner… *and then* say you get to $18 – you can pay them $3 and get your privileges back.. It’s really not as unfair or complicated or as different as ‘no fine’ systems as you are making it out to be.

        I totally support not sending people to collections over library fines, but I will never agree that removing the consequences for irresponsibility is a good thing. Libraries are great places to learn things- reading for one, but you learn how to be responsible there too…

  5. Late fee vs no late fee… hard to say. Very well may work out better for everyone if there is no late fee. And knowing this city they probably spend 1.5X the late fee revenue in managing the late fee system.

    But I will say that I’ve always thought that 25 cents/day was crazy exorbitant. Ideally the goal is zero late books so late fees shouldn’t be seen as an operational revenue source. I would think a nickle a day would achieve the same return rates as 25 cents. I’ve always believed that 25/day was an extremely regressive fine. Think of having near zero discretionary funds, taking out four books for your kid, then you can’t find them so get dinged for a buck a day. I’m sure that experience makes many people hesitant to borrow – get jacked for a fine or spend an hour you don’t have digging through your home looking for books.

    At the end of the day what makes systems like libraries work is personal responsibility. The late fees are/were a way to highlight your responsibility. Lets all hope that innate personal responsibility will win the day and all will work out fine. Count me as +1 getting more books into the hand of more people.