Seattle voters love libraries…would Prop 1 take advantage of them?

Aug 3, 2012

Seattle is renowned for its public libraries – and for people who love them.

Twelve years ago, the city's voters approved the “Libraries for All” levy and pumped nearly $200-million dollars into the system, to upgrade branches and build a new central library downtown. At the time, it was the largest bond measure ever passed for a library levy, anywhere in the country.

Now, Seattle is going back to voters with Proposition 1 on the August ballot. And it might be the first time some library-lovers are saying ‘not so fast.’

Proposition one asks Seattle voters for up to $123 million dollars in new property taxes to maintain and improve core services – services that have traditionally been paid for out of the city’s general fund.

Speaking at a news conference in April, Library Board President Marie McCaffrey helped make the case for the new levy.

She said the recession has taken its toll on the city’s tax revenue, forcing libraries to curtail their hours and slash their budgets. At the same time, in-person and online use have continued to grow.

“Without stable funding, the vision of Libraries for All is at risk," McCaffrey said. "The library system cannot sustain further cuts.”

But opponents are concerned about stable funding too – and say the levy won’t provide that, because it’s temporary. Chris Leman is the Campaign Manager of Save Our Seattle Library.

“We are absolutely in this because we care about the library too much to allow the voters to be bamboozled," Lehman says.

He thinks the ballot measure is misleading because the cuts to the system will come either way. So people are paying not just for library services with the levy, but also in effect to back-fill for other items in the general fund.

“And it’s not just bad for the library, making it vulnerable by moving it to temporary, unstable funding. But it’s just bad for democracy.”

But City Councilmember Jean Godden says Seattle has already tried hard to find funds to restore library services. In the face of a $32-million dollar shortfall, it’s tough.

“Do you fire policemen?   Do you not have all of your fire stations open? You have to have those. That is a given,” Godden said in a debate televised on the Seattle Channel.

Without the levy, the city says it will have to cut $5 million from the libraries’ funding next year– which is 10% of its budget, or the equivalent of closing 5 of its 26 branches.

If voters approve it, Proposition 1 would cost the owner of a median-priced home about $53 annually, for the next seven years.

The fiscal note on the measure details how the money would be spent.