GUEST COLUMN - Mayor Clark misrepresented library contract negotiations

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The Rural Library District has high hopes for the success of a project that could lead to consolidated library services for the region. The intent to continue this partnership effort even if contract negotiations failed was affirmed by Walla Walla Mayor Barbara Clark at the end of a meeting with the city manager and the RLD Board representatives on Sept 29.

However, in a column in the Union-Bulletin on Wednesday, Clark laid the blame for the failure of contract negotiations at the door of the RLD and said this was "a very disappointing end" to the project.

The city is calling an end to a project that is an inspiring opportunity to improve library services for everyone because it didn't get the amount of money it wanted from the RLD.

The city had calculated the RLD's contract amount to be $293,000 by multiplying the cost of library service that each city resident pays by the total urban population that is likely to use the library.

This is called the per capita formula. The city manager and mayor both state this is the formula recommended by the consultant. When Clark reminded readers in her opinion piece that a consultant was hired to study existing library services, she stated the consultant was also hired to suggest a formula for determining a fair contract price. This statement is untrue.

Further, the city manager and the mayor contend that the consultant in fact recommended a per capita formula. This is also untrue.

What the consultant said in her report on pages 47-48 is: "To establish a workable compensation model between the city of Walla Walla and the RLD, the city first needs to establish its baseline operating revenue budget for its municipal library. The operating expenditure budget should match the operating revenue that the city can afford to provide to city residents. Once this is known, a number of measures that might be used in a contractual compensation formula will be clearer: per capita revenue, per capita expenditures, cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation and so forth."

The RLD offered a contract of $200,000 to the city for services to its urban patrons, which is 6 percent higher than last year's contract and about $20,000 more than several models suggested was a fair price for services to rural patrons. These calculations were presented at the meeting with the mayor and city manager on Sept. 29 and were ignored. They were also placed in the City Council packet for its Oct. 2 special meeting on this issue. District library personnel offered to attend the Council meeting as a resource but were ignored. The information RLD presented was simply not addressed when Council voted to reject the $200,000 offer. And by all accounts, it was done in haste.

The City Library will now have $200,000 less in its budget to serve the residents of Walla Walla. This is the fault of the city, not the RLD. The city states it will be cutting hours, materials budget and staff for the library. Yet it had said in its contract offer that with RLD dollars it would add hours, buy more books and provide courier and other services.

Clearly, the city has not established and maintained proper operating revenues for its own institution and it has come to rely on RLD dollars. Since 1999, support for the city library has decreased by 63 percent. From 2002-2008 the city dollars in the library budget decreased 1.1 percent even as the RLD contract amount increased 32 percent. In 2008 the state Auditor's Office asked why RLD was paying so much.

The RLD patrons represent about 20 percent of the city library's use, yet the contract offered by the city would add 34 percent more dollars to its budget. The RLD Board believes 20 percent of the city library budget, which is $173,445 would be fair compensation for services to urban patrons. The more generous $200,000 was offered in good faith to help Walla Walla Public Library meet some of its other stated goals.

The recent breakdown in contract talks with the city has generated misinformation to the public in an effort to blame the RLD for the city's failure to maintain its own library services. The city has chosen to misrepresent the consultant's report in support of its need to backfill its inadequate library budget,

Finally, because RLD has been concerned with the decline of city library budget and services offered, it established a Plaza library branch to preserve and enhance local library services for everyone. It operates at this time much like a branch of the public library, which should be pleasing to the city as 71 percent of its usage is by city residents. It is neither expensive nor unnecessary, but a bargain and a huge asset to all library users.

How foolish of the city to reject $200,000 and walk away from discussions for better service for all.

Aletha Bonebrake is the interim executive director of the Walla Walla County Rural Library District.

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