Sno-Isle library system faces $2.5 million budget hole

Officials at Sno-Isle Libraries are considering a property tax increase to help close a projected $2.5 million budget gap next year.

The library system, which runs 21 community libraries on Whidbey and Camano islands and throughout Snohomish County, will hold a series of meetings this month and next to get feedback on how to respond to the budget shortfall.

Beyond a property tax increase, other ideas on the table include reducing the hours that libraries are open, cutting back on the purchase of new book and materials, and cutting staff, said Mary Kelly, a library spokeswoman.

Library officials said the system’s existing funding won’t cover the current level of service now seen in local libraries.

Voters last approved a property tax increase for Sno-Isle Libraries in November 2003, when the district’s levy was increased to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. Kelly said the district knew at the time that voters would be asked again for a levy increase within five or so years.

“We knew that probably in 2008 or 2009 we would need to go back to voters and ask them to increase the levy again,” Kelly said, adding that library officials knew rising costs would outpace revenues by now.

“This is not a surprise. We are where we thought we would be,” she said. “What we didn’t know was the condition the economy would be in.”

The first community meeting is 7 p.m. Thursday, May 21 at the Oak Harbor Library. Other meetings will be held at libraries on May 27 in Mukilteo, on May 28 in Stanwood and June 1 in Snohomish.

Kelly said the library system is looking for feedback on ways to bring the budget in line. Suggestions will be presented to the libraries’ board of trustees at their meeting on June 22.

Two approaches are under consideration: Raising the property tax levy, or reducing services.

“Do we close one evening a week, and how much does that save? Do we not replace vehicles, like delivery vans?” Kelly asked.

For people who can’t attend one of the meetings, an online survey will start today at click here. The Web site will have an interactive budgeting process, and people can share comments on the possibility of a library levy increase later this year. The online survey will run until June 10.

The library system serves more than 656,000 residents in Island and Snohomish counties. In 2007, it had 461 full- and part-time employees and total operating expenditures of more than $29.7 million.

During the November election, Whidbey voters rejected every property tax increase on the ballot, from proposals to pay for emergency services to measures for an improved Langley Marina and a new community pool. Kelly said library officials have heard that voters are reluctant to raise taxes while the economy is bad.

And that’s one of the reasons for the upcoming meetings, she said.

“We didn’t want to just be another public entity in financial trouble. We wanted to really bring people into the conversation,” Kelly said.

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