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Will there be more money for books?

Mail-in ballots are out for the Feb. 4 election on the Sno-Isle Regional Library levy increase, so it's time to make a decision.

Sno-Isle library officials are optimistic about the measure, which, if approved, would restore the library system's levy to its previous rate of 50 cents per $1,000 assessed property value. That's $100 a year in property taxes for someone with a $200,000 house.

The Sno-Isle levy is currently at 44 cents per $1,000, or $88 a year for that same house. Library officials point out the difference is just $12 a year.

"It is not a new tax," said Sno-Isle Library Director Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory, "but it is, however, an increase."

The proposed increase isn't meant to fund new libraries or services. It's about maintenance. Woolf-Ivory said the increase, if passed, will allow the library district to continue to offer the services it currently has in place.

The library system is trying to restore funding after taking a hit in its tax millage due to Initiative 747. However, the system did take in slightly more property tax income in 2002 than it did the previous year. Even if the levy fails, Sno-Isle will get another 1 percent revenue increase this year.

Under state law, library districts are allowed to maintain a regular levy rate of up to 50 cents per $1,000, which was where the Sno-Isle levy was at until 2000. But levy rates slip over time as assessed values increase. The total amount of money that the library system collects remains the same, but becomes a smaller percentage -- or levy rate -- as home and property values increase.

In the past, a library district could bring the levy rate back up to 50 cents without going through an election. But I-747 put a halt to that. The initiative limits annual tax increases to 1 percent unless more is approved by the voters.

The levy increase, if passed, would bring an additional $2.4 million into a system with 20 library branches, including those in Oak Harbor, Coupeville, Freeland and Clinton. Langley uses Sno-Isle services but contracts for them, thus Langley residents will not be voting in the election.

Woolf-Ivory said the library system's total revenue for 2003 is over $21 million, which comes from property taxes, city contracts, grants and a small amount from the timber tax.

The libraries are definitely popular. Last year, nearly 213,000 visits were made to the Oak Harbor Library, according to Woolf-Ivory. The busiest month was February, when the door counter tallied over 21,000 folks.

Last year nearly 47,000 visits were made to the Coupeville Library. The Freeland Library had about 78,000 visits.

The levy only needs a simply majority to pass. If it does, the levy will be restored on Jan. 1, 2004. But the levy rate would only be in effect for one year. In 2005 and after, the rate would likely drop again.

This could mean more costly elections. This election will cost Sno-Isle $700,000. Woolf-Ivory said the library system may need to hold another election in just three or four years, depending on inflation and growth.

If the levy increase doesn't pass, library officials warn that it would have a real impact on the library system's ability to maintain the current service. Without the increase, they say there will likely be longer waits for popular materials, fewer new titles, fewer magazine and newspaper subscriptions, less computer access, longer lines at checkout counter, fewer special programs and / or reduced library hours.

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