Pamela Mogen thought there would be a vote on increased funding for the Liberty Lake Municipal Library on Tuesday night – instead the discussion turned into a lively debate over municipal finances that involved everything from an historical overview of property tax policies since incorporation to a call to repeal the city’s embattled utility tax.
On Feb. 21, Liberty Lake Municipal Library Board President John Loucks presented the City Council with a proposal for a budget amendment that would add $36,000 for the remainder of the year, enough to move a part-time librarian to full time and add a part-time clerk. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Liberty Lake Finance Director R.J. Stevenson provided a summary of the library’s revenue and expenditure history, as well as an evaluation of how the new payroll increases would affect the budget in the long run.
Mogen, who has worked as librarian in Liberty Lake since 2004, said she had heard before the meeting from four representatives of the City Council, who said they would vote for the library upgrade. By the end of the discussion, however, no vote was taken.
Stevenson’s presentation began with the formation of the Liberty Lake library in 2002 when city officials voted to dedicate 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation to the library budget. The number was based on the amount previously paid by residents to the Spokane County Library District.
The library budget has gone up steadily over the years, starting with a total of $219, 545 in 2002 to a figure of $418,008 in 2011. Because funding is based on property tax and the variations of the housing market and assessed valuation, the amount paid by residents over the years has fluctuated. In 2009, the rate was set at 35 cents per $1,000. It went up to 37 cents in 2010 and stood at 41 cents last year. Property owners currently pay 43 cents per $1,000 toward their local library.
While the increase in employee pay and benefits would not represent an adverse impact through 2014, Stevenson did say the library would likely be looking at a deficit beginning in 2015. When asked by Mayor Pro Tem Odin Langford about the shift from surplus to debt in that time, Stevenson said it had to do with “trying to not overproject property and sales tax revenue.”
Council Member Cris Kaminskas called attention to the fact that the budget numbers on the table included revenue from a 3-percent utility tax on cable, phone, electric, waste and gas bills. The tax was originally installed at 6 percent near the close of 2010 to address a projected deficit of $700,000.
“I have a real problem with the utility tax being there for so many years when initially we talked about it being a Band Aid,” Kaminskas said. “We have the responsibility to our citizens and businesses to get rid of the utility tax.”
In regards to the other proposed budget amendment for this year – the addition of two police vehicles – Kaminskas said the emphasis on community safety would trump the library.
Prefacing her comments by saying she “did not want to be labeled as a hater of the library,” Council Member Susan Schuler pointed to examples of staffing at libraries in Cheney and Coeur d’Alene, saying both had levels far below Liberty Lake’s ratio of one employee per 949 residents.
“I have a difficult time spending more money to increase staff levels,” Schuler said.
Mogen countered by pointing out that as part of the Spokane County Library District, the Cheney library staff does not organize its own budget, work with a library board or foundation and is not responsible for ordering, cataloging or processing materials.
Pat Lutzenberger, a member of the library board who was in attendance on Tuesday, told the council that she was “encouraged” after hearing the report from Stevenson.
“I would hope you would reconsider this budget request,” Lutzenberger said.
Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson, an advocate of the library since his first administration, emphasized that the library board was put in place to oversee employee matters. He said the council would not have the same prerogative to participate in staffing decisions at the Spokane Valley Fire Department, another entity that draws from the Liberty Lake property tax base.
“This is not the process that went along with forming our own library,” Peterson said. “The question the council needs to ask is ‘What level of funding should you provide for the library?”