Balancing the Books

A fracas between the Spokane County Library District and the city of Spokane Valley threatens to shutter the Valley Library

Augustine Birrell, the turn-of-the-century essayist and literary critic, once wrote that "Libraries are not made; they grow" -- that is, unless they just die, which may be the case in Spokane Valley come the end of this year.

A fracas between the Spokane County Library District and the city of Spokane Valley, with roots going back to the city's incorporation in 2003, now threatens to shutter the Valley Library on East Main Avenue by Jan. 2 and to suspend library service for the city's 85,000 citizens at the remaining nine county branches.

The real kicker is that the reason behind the squabble is, to some extent, an academic one. Spokane Valley's City Hall would like nothing more than to continue to buy SCLD services. And the district's future largely hinges on providing those services.

The issue at hand isn't necessarily even the price tag. It's the way in which the final cost is calculated. Spokane Valley would like a bid for services based on usage, meaning that the district would appraise the values of the various services used by Spokane Valley citizens, multiply by the number of cardholders and cash out. The district, however, wants to charge Spokane Valley the same way it charges the rest of its users -- by taking 50 cents per every thousand dollars of assessed property value in the area.

The library district feels strongly enough about the issue that its board of trustees voted last week to start scratching together a plan for shutting down the Valley Library and thinning its own ranks in case the city doesn't agree to the property valuation payment method.

What seems like splitting hairs to some library advocates is a divisive enough issue to the city and the district that it's caused a potentially disastrous stalemate.

But let's back up a bit.

When Spokane Valley incorporated in 2003, city officials knew that by year's end it would lose the services it used to get as an unincorporated part of the library district. To retain those services, the city negotiated a contract with the library district for 2004. Then, as now, the city wanted to go on usage, the district on property valuation. Negotiations dragged into February of this year, when the district finally gave in and produced a usage-based cost.

District spokeswoman Beth Gillespie says, "We did that really as a grace period for the city of Spokane Valley. We didn't want, for a year anyway, for library services to be affected. We did land on something, but it was a guess at best." District director Mike Wirt adds that, "the contract made it really clear that this is a one-time thing."

But the city appears to have taken the fee structure issue as negotiable -- and made no mention of it when it sent out a Request for Proposals over the summer. As it did with its parks maintenance, the city decided to open up library services to "managed competition" -- that is, offers from both public and private entities to run the library system, in an effort to find the cheapest, most effective solution.

By the Sept. 28 deadline, the city had received two proposals: one from the county library district and one from a private firm based in Maryland. Though the latter's proposal came in about $100,000 under the library district's $2.27 million price tag, the council, on the advice of an ad hoc committee, ultimately decided to go with the district's bid, citing citizens' high satisfaction rate with the county. The cost of that proposal was based on property valuation.

But at the same Nov. 9 meeting when the council instructed staff to negotiate with the district, it also voted 6-1 to base the contract on usage calculations, not property valuation.

City councilman Richard Munson says the usage fee method gives the city a better understanding of what it's getting for its money. "You go to a car dealer, you look at the service contract and you know exactly what you're buying," he says, by way of comparison. "What we're asking for is that kind of delineation."

Mike Flannigan, the vote's lone dissenter, disagreed, telling the Spokesman-Review, "I think the library gave us a very fair offer," adding that, "now we're back to where we were before."

After the council's decision to pursue a usage-based bid, The Inlander was inundated with angry e-mails from library users. One asked, "Why would the city council put everyone through the time and expense ... and rigmarole without going into negotiations with an open attitude?"

Councilman Munson says that's exactly what they're doing. "We're saying we want to discuss it," he says, adding, "We're hoping that they're still going to negotiate."

The district remains stubborn, but they say they've got their reasons. First of all, they say that even though they were able to estimate a usage-based cost for the 2004 budget, it's a highly unreliable method.

"There's no accurate way to come up with a fee based on usage of Spokane Valley cardholders," says Beth Gillespie. That's because many library services -- like reference books, Internet service, even public restrooms -- don't require a library card. And entire families often use one card, making it hard to track usage.

Above all else, however, it's because, as director Mike Wirt emphasizes, it's not just the Valley library; it's a system. Spokane Valley cardholders get access to all 10 branch libraries throughout the county, plus Spokane city libraries. Spokane city cardholders get the same deal.

The district maintains that since they can't track where cardholders throughout the county use their cards, they can't accurately put a dollar value on how much Spokane Valley citizens use the library system. "There isn't a standard, accepted way to measure that, that can actually capture all of that. Except if you make some very broad assumptions," says Wirt.

What's more, the district says, it would be unfair to charge Spokane Valley citizens differently than the rest of the district, which pays the same 50 cents per thousand dollars of assessed property value asked of Spokane Valley.

But "differently" hasn't yet been defined. Because no one's figured out how to create a bid based on usage, there's no indication yet of whether going with a usage-based bid will cost more or less for Spokane Valley citizens.

As to Munson's complaint that the district's proposal was not detailed enough, Wirt professes bewilderment. He counters that it "said exactly what we were going to provide," including the minutiae of branch information, outreach services, IT support, position descriptions, salary scale and resumes of major staff.

"I had to assume that part of the reason that they chose the district [over the competing private firm] was because it appeared to give them the most bang for the buck," Wirt says.

Asked whether the usage/property value issue was a potential deal breaker, Wirt says, "I would have to say that it looks like it is."

Gillespie adds, "Right now, the ball is kind of in the city's court."

For all its tough talk, the county library district has a lot to lose. Dropping the $2.27 million contract with Spokane Valley would reduce the district's 2005 budget by a third, prompting a robust round of layoffs. The current budget being about equal to the city of Spokane's library budget, any cuts in the district would increase the differential between the two and, they say, endanger the present reciprocal borrowing agreement.

Not to mention that Spokane Valley's 85,000 citizens would no longer be able to use any Spokane County card-carrier services. And though the district would keep the Valley Library's 110,000 books after the building is shuttered, they say there isn't enough room in the other 10 branches to house them all -- so many could be mothballed.

All of which leaves county library users feeling, in the words of one e-mailer we heard from, "sucker-punched."

Mayo Sayrs, spokeswoman for Friends of the Spokane Valley Library, says, "Of course we're concerned about it. As advocates for our library, we have to be concerned about it."

Last week, she and a handful of others formed a group called the Citizens to Save the Valley Library. "We want the city council to accept the SCLD's proposal," she says. "I know the City Council wants to save money. I think they think they're doing it for us. But as far as we're concerned, it's worth it."

Over the weekend, the Citizens to Save the Valley Library were spotted at the Valley Library, City Hall and on Spokane Valley street corners waving signs and miming indignation.

The group's ultimate goal, says Sayrs, is to get people to write, phone, fax, and e-mail the city to let them know where citizens stand on the issue.

Though city officials have often cited cost to Spokane Valley taxpayers as a primary factor in their decision, neither they nor independent council observers have been able to confirm a substantial public outcry against the library district's proposal.

The Citizens also want to beef up attendance at the Nov. 30 City Council meeting on the library contract negotiations.

Both sides -- the district and the city -- express hope that something can be done to keep the libraries open for Spokane Valley. But neither sounds overly excited about budging from their respective positions and, when asked, neither was able to envision or discuss any possible middle ground.

Meanwhile, there's still time for Spokane Valley residents to visit their neighborhood branches and soak up all the wisdom therein.

Wisdom like this, from Henry Ward Beecher: "A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life." Or better yet, this, from Groucho Marx: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

The Spokane Valley City Council will meet to discuss negotiations with the Spokane County Library District on Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 6 pm at City Hall, 11707 E. Sprague, Spokane Valley.

Books and the City

Spokane Valley and the Spokane County Library District may be duking it out over how they're going to pay for library services, but at least they've got the money.

While the city of Spokane looks for new and interesting ways to lop $12 million from the general fund budget, last week the city's Library Board did its part, trimming its 2005 budget from a Robert Ludlum hardcover down to a lurid trade paperback.

In all, they cut $1 million, or about 15 percent, out of their budget. That turns out to mean something like $148,000 less in spending on new materials and partial suspension of service to branch libraries. Under the revised budget, the East Side, Indian Trail and Hillyard libraries would be bumped from five to two days of service per week; Shadle and South Hill will go from five to three days. Plus, the downtown branch would go from six days of bookish fun to five.

Library Director Jan Sanders, the library board and common townsfolk have hashed out the bloody details over the course of six town meetings and a number of board conferences. Suggestions have ranged from a $10 users fee (which turned out to be illegal) to full closure of certain branches. But Sanders says that with payroll being 70 percent of her budget, there were few other things to cut beside employee hours and, consequently, operation hours.

At a board meeting on Monday, the library approved the new days and hours of service for each branch, to take effect Jan. 1. Like parents putting down the family dog, board members emphasized their unhappy reluctance. However, they also elected to preserve senior-citizen outreach programs and create a one-year pilot outreach program for youth in areas hit hardest by the cuts.

With the scheduling details ironed out, there's little else to do but wait for next Monday's City Council meeting, at which council members will look at cuts throughout the Growth and Learning module of the Priorities of Government, including the library's budget. The council could recommend either to scoop more money away from libraries or to pile more money on. Neither looks likely, but public comment is welcomed on Nov. 29 at 6 pm in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

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Sat., May 21, 7:45 p.m.
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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...