WALLA WALLA -- As expected, a recently released report on library funding confirmed the city's library is grossly underfunded, but what was also revealed by an independent consultant is that Walla Walla County Rural Library District may have been justified in its assertion that it was paying an unfair amount to the city to serve its clients.
On Wednesday, WALNET-funded library consultant Ruth Metz reviewed her findings at two public meetings: the first at City Hall, where numerous city and county officials, and even more library board members and staff, were present; and again in the evening at Fire District Four's station on Howard Street, where a more informal group of library supporters gathered.
It was at the later meeting that Metz elaborated on how Rural Library District funding to the city library stayed steady up until 2009; city funding, however, had dropped considerably over the last decade.
At one point in the mid-2000s, Metz said the rural district funding made up 40 percent of the city library budget.
According to Metz, the average per-capita library spending for Washington communities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 people is about $38.
The Rural Library District uses a little over $40 per person to serve the residents of the unincorporated area; the city is much lower, Metz said.
"I am not here to pick on the city, I am supposed to look at sustainable library service in Walla Walla County, but when you look at the two figures ... the per capita revenue for the city of Walla Walla actually is in the low 20s," she said.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the city is the population hub of the county. So its library serves a far greater number of patrons than the rural district.
The result is that the overall county rate drops considerably below the state average.
"You add the Rural Library contract (funds) with that and it does bring it up a little higher. But essentially the county as a whole is below the norm for the population by a significant amount," Metz said.
According to her report, when all municipal and Rural Library District funds are combined, the county average comes to about $31 per person, or roughly 18 percent under the state average for funding libraries.
"I am not here to tell you, you have a bad library. I am here to tell you, you have an underfunded library. And you could do something about it," Metz said.
A few minutes after making the statement, one man asked Mayor Barbara Clark, who was sitting in the audience, to explain why the city was significantly underfunding its library.
"When there is not enough money to fund everything you like, you start to say which is most important. And I would say for the majority of the Council, the library is not as important," Clark answered.
The reason for the city's decline in funding goes back to Initiative 695, Metz said. Since the initiative passed, the amount of city property tax revenues dedicated for the library has dropped from 99 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 1999 to 34 cents per $1,000 in 2010.
Rural Library District funding to the city, on the other hand, remained mostly steady until 2009.
Faced with what it considered were diminishing services to its own clients and an unfair reimbursement formula, the rural district restructured its method of reimbursement to the city in 2009 to one that was based on actual cardholders instead of a fixed percentage of its property tax revenues.
The result has been a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city library and contentious yearly contract negotiations, with both sides claiming the contracts are unfair.
"It is not a moral issue, it is not a judgement, it just is what it is," Metz said.
While the contract issues covered a large portion of the evening meeting, most was dedicated to detailing what Metz considered the only viable solution, which is the formation of a single county-wide library taxation district, which would include all the incorporated cities: Walla Walla, College Place, Waitsburg and Prescott.
"Look. We are losing ground on funding; we are at 80 percent of the norm. This would give us additional resources to not only serve you, but to expand services," Metz said.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.
Pathways to Sustainable Libraries - Walla Walla, WA