I’ve been reluctant to enter the discussion about fairness of past contracts between the Rural Library District and the city of Walla Walla, because I assumed that any problems of the past would be solved by adoption of current proposals for annexation or a long-term service contract.
Under the annexation proposal, separate city and RLD library services would be replaced by a single, larger RLD made up of current RLD residents plus city residents.
Everyone in this expanded RLD would pay the exact same rate for access to library services and be represented by a single board of directors.
Under the long-term contract proposal, everyone in the combined service area would pay the same rate as well. RLD residents would have representatives on the city library board.
But now the RLD board has said it will not consider annexation, and its Aug. 14 advertisement in the U-B has generated some confusion regarding contracts, so clarification seems necessary.
The city has supplied library services to RLD residents for 38 years under various contracts negotiated by the parties. From available information, the contract amount paid by the RLD during the 25 years from 1975 through 1999 rose and fell but hovered at about 26 percent of the total operating costs of the public library.
Since the RLD population is a little over one-third of the total population served by the city library, it would have been fair if its contribution had been closer to 33 percent, but the actual numbers seem to have been acceptable to everyone.
From 1996 to 2008 the contract amount was a percentage of the total property tax collected in Fire Districts 4 and 8, and as property values rose, so did the contract payments. From 2000 to 2003 the amount was about 30 percent of the operating budget, but from 2004 to 2008 it was near or above 35 percent.
The contract was then renegotiated, and in 2009 it fell to under 25 percent and even lower in 2010 and 2011.
In sum, for 34 of the 38 years of contracts, the city paid a 67 percent fair share of the library’s operating budget or more. Conversely, for 34 of the 38 years, the RLD paid a 33 percent fair share or less. The RLD paid more than its fair share for only four years of the 38.
Since there are reasonable solutions, it would benefit everyone if we could lay the past to rest and all get on with implementing either of the current proposals that would provide the unified library system almost everybody wants.
The RLD is understandably less cost-effective than the city library because its rural population is spread thinly over a large area, requiring more buildings and other overhead to serve fewer people. In 2011, according to State Library figures, the RLD spent $15.46 to circulate a book while the city library spent only $2.89.
The RLD spent 98 cents per person for materials, while the city library spent only 38 cents per person. Yet the city’s collection is substantially larger than that of the RLD, and each city book, CD or DVD circulated 10.19 times during the year while RLD items circulated only 3.37 times.
Adding another urban library rather than taking advantage of the cost efficiencies of the existing one seems to me a poor use of public funds.
For example, under the long-term contract proposal, the RLD would pay about $275,000 a year to provide library services for its urban residents.
That’s considerably less than its planned $3.5 million construction plus annual operating and building maintenance expense for a second urban library.
Not only would a new library cost the RLD more to serve its urban residents, but that extra cost is money that could be used instead to improve service to the RLD’s rural residents in and around Touchet, Burbank, Prescott, Vista Hermosa, Farm Labor Homes, and areas east of Walla Walla.
We really should all be working together to make good use of public money and resources.
Barbara Clark is a Walla Walla City Council member.