When Pierce County voters receive their general election ballots in the coming days, library boosters hope the public will be feeling particularly generous. The shape of future library services, they say, hangs in the balance.
Ballots are set to hit the mail Friday and are due by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 6. The library measure – officially known as Proposition No. 1 – is fairly straightforward: it seeks to restore the library system’s levy rate to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s the legal limit the district can impose and would represent an increase of about 10 cents above the current rate.
The district is likewise straightforward when discussing the potential fallout should the levy request fail. Library hours would be cut, district trustees warn, and users would see reduced materials and programs throughout the countywide system. The biggest cuts to local communities would come in the form of outright closures, with two or perhaps three libraries closed for good.
If the Nov. 6 measure, known as a levy lid lift, is granted, the district says it can maintain current levels of service, including hours of operation, staffing levels and resources like books, movies and other materials.
DOLLARS AND CENTS
Currently, the district assesses county property owners at a rate of about 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. That means an annual tax bill in the neighborhood of $128 for the owner of property (buildings and land) assessed at $320,000. The Nov. 6 ballot measure would add $32 annually, bringing the library portion of the tax bill to $160.
If the levy is authorized, increased library collections would begin in 2019. There is an exemption for senior citizens and people with disabilities; those meeting certain income guidelines cam be exempted from all or part of the local tax burden.
WHY THE NEED?
Library boosters will point to the increased cost of doing business and note that expenses are outpacing revenue collections.
Among the numbers tossed about are these:
• during the past decade, the district has experienced a 33 percent increase in materials being checked out;
• attendance at district classes and other events has grown by 79 percent;
• computer use has jumped 44 percent;
• and the number of library cards in circulation has boomed by 63 percent while the district’s population has increased by 16 percent.
The bottom line, the district states, is that costs are increasing between 4 and 7 percent annually while property tax revenues climb at a slower rate, between 1 and 4 percent. Property taxes are the lifeblood of the system, accounting for about 94 percent of the Pierce County Library System revenue stream.
THE DISTRICT MAKES ITS CASE
In looking for a financial boost from the public, the PCLS touts its reputation as a good steward of the public’s money. Only once before, in its 72-year history, has the district asked for a restored levy; that came in 2006 when the public ponied up money that was to maintain service for up to six years. In fact, the district states, the funding was stretched to a dozen years.
To make available dollars go as far as possible, the district has cut certain services, streamlined where possible and deferred needed maintenance to the tune of $20 million.
Cuts came in reduced spending for books, movies and other materials and the elimination of downloadable and streaming movies. Also, the public is no longer allowed to use library meeting rooms when facilities are closed.
Now, the district hopes the voting public will agree to pay more in property taxes to restore some services and keep the county’s libraries operating.
HOW BUSY ARE LOCAL LIBRARIES?
The three area branches of the Pierce County Library System had 275,000 people strolling through their doors in 2017.
Here are the totals, provided by the district.
• The Bonney Lake library had 87,000 visitors and saw 277,000 items checked out (books, movies and other);
• The Buckley library counted 42,000 visitors and 89,000 items checked out;
• The Sumner library had 136,000 visitors and 260,000 items checked out.