Perched in a corner of Mike Wirt’s office in the administrative wing of the Spokane County Library District is a bright orange and white sign that reads, “Vote Yes – Spokane County Libraries.”
Over the years, it’s an adage that has enjoyed support among local residents who have seen library levies and bonds appear on a range of election ballots. SCLD first passed a $2 million operations and maintenance levy in 1966 and has seen levy lid lifts – adjustments in the tax rate based on increases in property value – win in 1983, 1992 and 2006.
This August, the district will again vie for a simple majority – any margin over 50 percent of the vote – to implement a boost that would restore the tax to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The percentage has dropped to just under 45 cents per $1,000 due to increases in overall estimated property value throughout Spokane County.
“Restoring the property tax levy to 50 cents would help us maintain current service levels,” said Wirt, who has served as SCLD director since 1980.
The shift would mean a tax increase of about $7.50 on a home valued at $150,000, or around $10 on a $200,000 house. Funds from property tax comprise approximately 93 percent of the SCLD budget, or roughly $9.7 million annually.
Wirt said he is optimistic about the community response to the district’s latest request.
“I think the average library patron feels like we are spending the money well,” he said. “If it seems like we’re asking for a reasonable amount of money, it seems like they would support us because they’ve supported us in the past.”
Wirt and the rest of the administrative staff are doing their best to draw a distinction between a recent series of community open houses centered around a 20-year master capital facilities plan and the levy lid lift which covers day-to-day expenses. The district is looking at a placing a bond on the ballot – possibly by 2012 – that would pay for several building projects.
The potential construction list over the next two decades includes a new central Spokane Valley branch as well as a site on Conklin Road and one in south Spokane Valley. Expansions and improvements to the Argonne and Otis Orchards branches have also been discussed.
“At these meetings, we’ve made it a point to separate the purposes of each ballot issue,” said Beth Gillespie, SCLD spokeswoman.
The district is hosting open houses at each of its 10 branches this summer to distribute information and answer questions about the August ballot proposal. A meeting was held earlier this month at the Argonnne building while discussions are set for July 13 at Otis Orchards and July 22 at Spokane Valley. Each open house will run from 4 to 7 p.m.
Wirt said the issue would likely appear on the November ballot if it did not earn enough votes to pass in August. In addition to the open houses, the district’s promotional campaign includes posters, flyers and informational mailers to be sent out to every residence in Spokane County prior to the election. SCLD representatives are also presenting their case to civic groups, including an appearance at a Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce meeting last week.
Wirt said he is not concerned about any lingering effects from the March 2008 election when SCLD saw two initiatives fail, including a $33.4 million bond that would have provided funds for a new Spokane Valley Library, upgrades to the Argonne branch and a new Conklin Road location. The defeat came after capital facility victories at the ballot in 1983, 1988 and 1996.
Wirt has said since the 2008 election that opposition to a proposed Spokane Valley city center in the same U-City block as the future library had some influence on the vote.
“It think there were a lot of issues that contributed to that (loss),” Wirt said.
Wirt pointed to the increase in library use as one reason to support the initiative in the Aug. 17 special election. There were nearly 680,000 visits to scld.org in 2009, a jump of 20 percent from 2008. Last year also marked a 3 percent hike in the overall number of cardholders. The district has a rolling five-year plan to update each of its 10 buildings, an approach that includes renovating HVAC systems, upgrading technology and replacing carpets and tabletops.
“There’s wear and tear each year,” Wirt said. “If people are going to be asked to invest in these buildings, we need to maintain them.”