Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Books, Budgets and Library Brawls

Above: Lest we forget what libraries are all about..."Sharing" sculpture outside Timberland Regional Library in Lacey. This boy is so busy "sharing" that he has been on the same page since 1993.

By Janine Gates

My most recent property tax statement says that I paid $68.21 to the Timberland Regional Library (TRL) system, so, after reading an article in The Olympian about TRL's upcoming town hall meeting, I thought I’d go learn more about their budget woes and why the recent library levy didn’t pass.

I love the library. I used to home school my kids and take out my limit of 200 books and videos at one shot. Before we went on our recent international trips, I checked out an equal number of books and videos to learn all I could in advance. I check out books every week. And no, I usually don’t bring them back on time.

According to the TRL Winter newsletter, TRL receives 89% of its revenues from property taxes. Most of the balance comes from taxes on harvested timber. With the decline in new construction and timber harvests, TRL faces a $1.5 million gap. TRL locations were visited almost 2.7 million times, and staff answered more than 500,000 reference questions. Cardholders borrowed almost five million items.

The meeting at the Olympia library on the evening of March 9 was a shock and an education.

TRL Board Executive Director Jodi Reng started off the meeting looking and sounding quite librarian-like. Dressed in a soft pink suit, she used an indoor, sing-song-y voice as if talking to children. But her preconceived agenda of polling the audience by a show of hands what they would be willing to pay extra for quickly started to run away from her and she soon turned as pink as her outfit. Good thing no children were present. She, and a few articulate audience members, would have knocked their socks off.

Reng wanted to explore options to the following questions: “To increase revenues, I would be willing to pay a fee for…,” and “To reduce costs, I would be willing to do without…,” however, audience members clearly did not want to be pigeon-holed into raising their hands to the polls without having more information.

"What kind of attempts have you made to cut costs?" yelled one man from the back of the room.

"What have we done? Goodness, we've done so many things..." Reng began, but she couldn't name any that didn't cut actual services.

A man stood up, paper in hand, and asked to speak.

Sit down Mr. Bragg!” Reng barked. “I don’t think anyone wants to hear a five minute talk.” The audience, aghast, protested her conclusion. Indeed, they wanted to hear from this elderly, kindly looking gentleman.

Reng pulled out her chair and huffily plunked down. He then identified himself as Mr. Kenneth Bragg, a former Timberland Library Board of Trustee, said he would hold his comments until the end. Internal politics appeared to be at hand here.

Judy Weaver, TRL board member and Michael Crose, TRL administrative services manager, were present.

The raucous evening, billed as a “town hall meeting,” was standing room only. The audience gradually stopped raising their hands as it became apparent people had deeper concerns on their mind and wanted to discuss what led the Timberland Library system into this budget crunch in the first place.

Audience members expressed significant problems with the execution and failure of the recent levy election, internal accountability and budget efficiency. The February ballot was expensive to produce and was offered to the voters at a time when there was no other reason for voters to pay attention. No voter’s pamphlet was offered to voters to educate the community about the proposed levy.

Many lobbied against the levy, not because they don’t love the library, but because they feel Thurston County is already shouldering most of the economic burden for the five-county library district.

The Timberland Regional Library system has a board of seven board members, appointed by the Thurston County Commissioners for seven year terms. Many feel these board members are not being properly accountable to the public because they are not elected, and the meetings are not televised on Thurston County Television (TCTV), like local city council and port meetings.

“What surprises me is the level of anger and angst,” one man said, who declined to identify himself later. “The library has to have a strategy for dealing with issues, opportunities for people to share their values - it would be an opportunity for dialog - to diffuse it in a cooperative manner….”

“That would cost money….” said Crose.

“Yes, that will cost money….” echoed Reng.

Many of the suggestions offered by the audience, such as offering a tea and coffee cart for donations and charging for overdue books, either appeared to be nickel and dime solutions or no-brainers, compared to the greater economic problem facing the library system.

Above: List of concerns include TRL practice of having state-funded meeting-dinners prior to board meetings.

A woman who identified herself as a former librarian was incensed with the purpose of the meeting. The woman, Susan Stringfield, later said she has been a librarian for 25 years and last worked for the Timberland library system four years ago. She reiterated that there are many, larger issues at play here that could have prevented this fiscal crisis in the first place.

“One of the issues that bothers me the most is that they have overspent the budget for the last two to three years. You don’t do that with government money. But the TRL Board rubberstamps expenditures….While I was there, I noticed a lot of problems - now I can’t even enjoy my library as a patron….” Stringfield said.

About the town hall meetings, Stringfield says the Board hasn’t even researched the cost of obvious funding options such as overdue fines, how much it would cost to implement and how much revenue that would generate.

“What did the most damage was taking away Sunday hours. That was a service people depended on….You know, we librarians have master’s degrees. We are professionals, and we have a creed to serve the public - we’re advocates,” said Stringfield, her voice rising with passion.

Eliminating Sunday hours at eight regional libraries and the telephone reference center saved TRL $150,000, according to the Winter 2009 TRL newsletter.

“That’s nothing,” says Stringfield. “Closing on Sundays hurt families and people who work. They (the TRL Board) didn’t even consider closing alternate Sundays, or possibly closing for a weekday evening. They could have been more creative…I don’t think they’ve acted responsibly….”

“Thurston County is very underserved…there are standards, and we’re not meeting them,” Stringfield concluded.

In between outbursts, many revenue producing ideas were offered: one girl said she would pay to take out DVD’s. Other ideas: fine for failure to pick up holds, and charges to use the computers and internet, charge for copies generated from the computers, charge for meeting room use, charge for a library card, charge for interlibrary loans, limit book checkout, charge for library programs, and more.

Reng suggested a fine for failure to pick up holds because, she said, each hold has to be handled 12 times to get to the end user. Suggestions included to limit the number of holds, or charge to ask for a hold. To some, it would appear that the TRL Board should examine and streamline the hold process.

With all the apparent problems and concerns with the economic imbalance Thurston County shoulders to fund the system, one man asked what it would take for Olympia to cede from the library system. Crose responded that it would go to the city council and take a ballot measure.

And what happened to Mr. Bragg? He was allowed to say his piece. His message included an educational account of the current TRL budget situation. “The budget crisis is a function of adding staff over a two year period by drawing on reserves, spending over $500,000 on a failed levy lid election and a recession which reduced new construction….”

Mr. Bragg covered budget suggestions, possible changes in the library’s administrative functions, library governance and internal TRL accountability issues, that if implemented, would help the library system in the long run.

Bragg mentioned legislation, HB 2200, sponsored by Representative Brendan Williams (D-22), and its companion bill, SB5999, that would provide representation on the TRL Board based on population, just as legislators represent their districts.

“Thurston County is the only one out of 16 counties…with over half the population of the district and less than half the votes on the library board. Passage of this legislation would help unify support for the Timberland Library. Thurston County has 57% of the voters in the TRL district so a more unified Thurston County would be crucial in any future election,” Bragg said. Both bills recently died in committee, March 12, without being heard.

Audience member Jim Lazar also came to the meeting prepared with budget and TRL governance suggestions. Lazar proposes to divide TRL into five separate county-wide library districts, each with trustees appointed by the county commissioners of that county. The current taxing authority of TRL would be dissolved and that taxing authority would be vested in the five county library districts.

With this scenario, Lazar believes it would be possible to pass a local one-county levy-lid lift, if the voters could be assured that all their increased taxes would go to providing library services in their county.

Eventually, the meeting concluded with Reng acknowledging that the Timberland Regional Library system could have done things better. “We as librarians don’t do politics much. We’re not as practiced as the schools are, for example. We probably could have done better,” Reng said.

“Well, I say, start learning!” said an unidentified guy from the back of the room.

Above: The TRL town hall meeting in Lacey on March 17 was much more civil than the one held in Olympia. Here, TRL Director Jodi Reng chats with Barbara Crane, board member of the Lacey Library. Crane says the Lacey library board meets once every couple of months to discuss issues specific to the Lacey library, such as theft, which is a significant problem. Crane says these meetings are open to the public.


  1. I'm uneasy about Lazar's proposal. Yes, we could use better libraries here in Thurston County. Yes, the current structure effectively functions as a form of revenue sharing with poorer and more rural communities. But Lazar's approach seems myopic in its self interest.

    For starters, if we really want to improve local libraries then why don't we better coordinate ALL local resources? Thurston County is unusual in that it is the home to a private university, a state college, a community college and the seat of state government. Every single one of those entities has a library. Yet as far as I know there is very little coordination between any of them, particularly regarding capital facilities. Why not?

    By the same token, other communities around the nation have experimented with great success with co-location of libraries at K-12 schools. Has the library district done any research along these lines? Again, why not?

    I bet that if we engaged in truly community-wide library planning that there would be considerably greater resources with which to accomplish our goals. Indeed, I would argue that unplugging the current regional governance/funding structure would be entirely unnecessary.

    Now, the rest of the library district would also arguably benefit by emphasizing community-wide planning. For example, it would have made a great deal of sense for the Amanda Park library to have been co-located at the nearby public school. Why wasn't it?

    That said, it should be remembered that Thurston County has a lopsided advantage over the rural parts of the library district when it comes to generating resources for libraries. That's why the regional system was created in the first place.

    I assume that Lazar would argue that each community gets the quality of library that it deserves. To a certain degree that may be true, but in the poorest areas that's like insisting that a food stamp recipient should do a better job of saving up for retirement. When you are as poor as Amanda Park, finding the money to build a library is difficult to impossible.

    I believe that richer and more urban parts of the state DO have a moral responsibility to help the poorer, more rural parts of the state to obtain basic resources like libraries. By all means come up with a better way to do that. But don't take money away from the poor.

    And while we're at it, how about getting our act together here in Thurston by cultivating collaboration among agencies that long ago should have been working together rather than solo empire building. In my book that's the library system's biggest failure.

  2. Excellent work, Janine. Regarding your March 17 item on the contentious Library meeting, your readers should know that Ken Bragg led opposition to the two attempts to pass a library bond issue in 1997. His position was sincere and based on the same principles of governance and taxation he's espoused ever since. But if that bond issue had passed, our community for the past decade would have been enjoying a beautiful large new downtown library where the Boardwalk Apartments now stand, and in another three years the construction bonds would have been paid off and the tax levy removed from our property tax bills.

    Still, there is no excuse for rudeness, whether intended or not, toward someone wishing to speak at a public meeting.

    I'd like to offer a few more observations:

    1. The seven TRL Board members are not all appointed by Thurston County. I think one or two of them are. The others represent other TRL members.

    2. While Thurston County may produce more property taxes than the other member counties, the others produce (or usually do) much more of the timber revenue.

    3. RE seceding from the district or insisting on a population based distribution of revenues, "beggar your neighbor" has a certain surface appeal. But taken to an extreme it's destructive of community. We (Olympia) ASKED to be taken into the rural library district decades ago knowing full well what the rules were. We have benefited from the larger resources of the combined counties in the media available and professional staff and in economies of scale.

    4. With the current Thurston County and local cities' budget situation, it is unrealistic to expect that they could replace TRL operations funding "out of their hides." So the natural replacement would have to be a countywide regional library district, a separate junior* taxing district. That would have to be approved by the voters, I'd think. I don't know if a supermajority (60 percent plus one) would be needed to do that. I do know it would take a very strategic and concerted campaign by someone (who?) to convince the voters to establish such a district even as a replacement for the TRL property tax levy. I'm not sure if this new entity would then be still eligible for money from what few timber harvests now take place in Thurston County. So the new district's levy would likely be more than the current TRL tax bill.

    5. If timber money (even from timber harvested in Thurston County) were removed from the equation, the countywide library system would be entirely reliant on property tax for operation and maintenance and (through uncertain voted bond issues) for major capital improvements such as new libraries or expansions/remodels. And, again taking parochialism to its next logical level, what would the rest of Thurston County's jurisdictions say if we wanted everyone's money to be directed to building a new library in Olympia? The same old argument would start up again. (See: PFD.)

    So where are we now? Olympia has lost the one best chance it will ever have, in my opinion, to get a large modern downtown library. Now the talk has reverted to adding a Westside branch library, an option the Council rejected in 1996 after extensive evaluation by a nationally-recognized consultant. The cost of property and construction are much higher now than in 1997.

    With the current economic downturn, the City has no revenue source identified to build or maintain another library and TRL would be hard pressed to staff a second branch here. The City has not even identified a revenue source to fully staff the fourth fire station approved for construction by the voters, let alone libraries which over many decades here have not had nearly the same voter support when bond measure are on the ballot.

    As for adding floors to our existing library, in the late '70s, aft the first voted bond issue to build it failed, costs were cut by removing the structural strength to support additional floors. The bond issue passed the second time. So now, the only way to build more floors on that building would be to construct columns around and through it and suspend the upper floors from them. And then of course there's still the need for more parking, which would add even more cost. Also, in the mid-90s design process for proposed new library, the library staff insisted that, for security and operational efficiency, the new building have no more than two stories.

    And still the library power struggle continues. It looks like "lose-lose" all around to me. Tragic.

    Mark Foutch

    *As I understand it, the various taxing districts have priorities over one another, with the State and general purpose local jurisdictions and public safety predominating. If property tax levies ever approached the basic State statutory ceiling the junior districts would have their caps lowered first. A regional fire district, if created, might have seniority over a library district. Same for a regional park district. So these apparently-simple issues are full of "wheels within wheels."