Budget cuts may abridge Walla Walla Public Library services

The city is looking for ways to make up a projected $1.3 million budget shortfall for next year.

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WALLA WALLA - For the second consecutive biennial budget year, the Walla Walla Public Library is looking at a shortfall that threatens a reduction in hours.

"I don't feel we can take any more (budget reductions) without a significant decrease in service to our customers," said Interim Director Beth Hudson.

But earlier this summer that is exactly what Hudson was instructed to do: prepare a budget with a reduction of $188,000.

In an attempt to make up a projected $1.3 million shortfall in revenues for 2011, City Manager Nabiel Shawa is in the process of determining how much each department will have to cut. Shawa emphasized he will not do an across-the-board percentage cut for all departments, which means some departments will get cut more than others to make up the deficit.

"What I am avoiding is simply saying ‘all right everybody is going to have to take a three to five percent budget cut.' That is the easiest way to take care of it as a manager, but that does a disservice to the citizens," Shawa said.

But there is another reason the library has been singled out for roughly an 18 percent cut to its yearly budget of about $1 million. And just like in 2008, when the last biennial budget was worked out, that revenue shortfall centers on the city's reimbursement contract with the Walla Walla Country Rural Library District.

For the third straight year, the Rural Library District is trying to negotiate a reduction in the amount it pays the city to provide library cards to residents who live in the unincorporated areas immediately surrounding the city of Walla Walla.

Last year, the Rural Library District paid the city of Walla Walla $235,000 in reimbursements for services to people living in its jurisdiction. This year, the district negotiated its reimbursement down to $188,000.

In recent weeks the district said it wanted that figure dropped to $125,000 a year for the next two years, according to city officials.

Shawa said City Council members have commented to him they feel anything less than $188,000 will not cover costs to provide cards to people living in the Rural Library District boundaries.

"What it comes down to is the Council increasingly believes that the extra work that is associated to be providers (to the surrounding unincorporated residents) outweighs what they receive," Shawa said.

The bottom line, according to Shawa and Mayor Barbara Clark, is that some Council members say they may be ready to call it quits with the Rural Library District and end their yearly contract agreements.

"That is a possibility," Clark confirmed, who sat in on the preliminary negotiations with the Rural Library District.

Shawa explained that the issue isn't so much with the price per cardholder - which the Rural Library District complains is too high - but with the number of cardholder reimbursements the district is willing to pay for.

Hudson believes the Rural Library District should reimburse the city for every cardholder who resides in Fire Districts 4 and 8.

Rural Library District Director Punkey Adams feels her district should have to reimburse only for one card per household. She added that the Rural Library District is paying a nonresident fee far higher than what is common for the region or state, which is $135 per card.

"I have not ever found a nonresident fee ever higher in the state of Washington," Adams said. She noted that nonresident fees in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle vary anywhere from $55 to $100.

In addition to the $188,000 budget cuts, Shawa said he is also pushing for the city to hold off on filling the current library director vacancy. According to a 2007 online city salary report, the library director makes between $72,000 and $92,000 per year. But the actual savings to the city could be closer to $100,000 per year.

But that savings could also end up costing the city in the long run, according to Library Board member Kathy Foster.

"The thing that they are going to lose is the long-term planning and the long-term grants and gifting. Those are the sort of things that the director looks for. Nobody is going to go out and do those things," Foster said.

Shawa said if the city can work out a reimbursement contract with the Rural Library District, that money would be dedicated to fund the city's library. But he doubts the city will be able to afford hiring a director at this point.

Hudson pointed out that the library director also works regular hours at the desk, including weekend backup when needed. So cutting the position is cutting staff hours to operate the facility. She noted that she couldn't see making $188,000 in budget cuts without cutting staff hours, which would cut hours of operation.

"Personnel and open hours are tied very closely because we always have to have at least two people at the front desk ... We can't cut the number of people available when we are open, so we have to cut hours," she said.

Shawa pointed out the final decision on budget cuts will be decided by City Council.

On Sept. 20, a special City Council work session on the proposed 2011-12 biennial budget will be held at 4 p.m. at City Hall, 15 N. Third Ave.

The meeting is open to the public and public testimony will be heard.

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