Libraries call it "the end'

The Rural Library District hopes to start a new chapter by building its own $5.5 million library.

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WALLA WALLA - Directors with the Walla Walla Library and the Rural Library District are ready to end nearly four decades of working together to provide library services for city and county residents.

After several joint meetings earlier this year to study and develop better ways to cooperate - which included looking at options such as 10-year contracts or even the city joining the Rural Library District - both agencies reported last month they were unable to come up with a solution and are now developing their own strategic plans independent of each other.

"There is not going to be a contract. That was stated by both sides because each side determined that it would continue to work on its own strategic plan," Rural Library District Director Aletha Bonebrake said.

In a recent press release, Walla Walla Library Director Beth Hudson added, "Unfortunately, we were unable to agree on a model to recommend to the City Council and the Rural Library Board. At this time we'll go forward on a different course than we'd hoped for ..."

What that means for the roughly 10,000 residents of Fire Districts 4 and 8 is they will no longer have valid Walla Walla Library cards after this year, when the current contract between the two libraries expires.

To further solidify the split, Bonebrake said the Rural Library District is moving forward with building its own $5.5 million 15,000-square-foot library to serve county residents in the "suburban" areas surrounding Walla Walla.

Bonebrake gave two reasons for moving ahead to build the facility: city officials made it clear they will not allow the Rural Library District to buy individual cards for county residents and Bonebrake believes the city's library is too small to serve both populations.

"The Walla Walla Public Library is not large enough to serve the 50,000 people that are in this area. It is only barely large enough to serve its 30,000," Bonebrake said.

The design, location and opening day for the proposed library have yet to be determined, but Bonebrake said it won't be open until several months into next year.

That means that unless the city sells cards to the district or a new contract is worked out, county residents will have to rely on the Rural Library District's grouping of smaller branch libraries to meet their needs.

Members of the independent Library Users Coalitions have voiced their disappointment with the direction the Rural Library District is taking and the fact that both agencies could not come to an agreement.

"What we were hoping for was some kind of a framework where they could continue to work and build accord over services," coalition member Jacqueline George said. "I am hoping that there are county people who are a little upset about the idea that there is going to be a second library built with their tax money."

Since 1974, the city and the Rural Library District have worked together to provide library services, with the district paying the city to provide cards to county residents.

In recent years, the Rural Library District reduced its payment to the city, noting that since 2000 the city had reduced funding, services and hours of operation to its own library and was relying more on district funds to backfill the city library's budget.

Prior to the Rural Library District's decrease in funding, it paid the city $365,000 to provide cards in 2008.

Contentious negotiations over the next four years resulted in that payment ranging from as low as $188,000 to the current $245,000 for 2012.

The Library Users Coalition has criticized the cuts by the Rural Library District, which this year will collect more than $500,000 in taxes from the residents of Fire District 4 and 8.

"When I look at the numbers, I think that the Rural Library District has underfunded the city. They say they are paying too much. I say they are underfunding their constituents in this area ... they have their tax money from their citizens and they are supposed to be supporting them with a library," George said.

Bonebrake said trying to invest their funds in a single area doesn't work for a county library system, noting that the Rural Library District must commingle and invest its funds to provide equitable services throughout the entire county, not just to those neighborhoods who paid the most taxes.

"In libraries you have different philosophies and you are above politics. You don't provide to specific populations ... In other words, we are generalists. All we do is provide access to information on a completely unbiased and equitable basis," Bonebrake said.

The funding options that city and district officials studied in their joint meetings included the current contract system, extending the contracts to five or 10 years and the possibility of the city joining the Rural Library District.

None of the contractual options proved feasible due, in part, to the fact the city feels the contract should be based on providing access to all 10,000 residents of Fire Districts 4 and 8, while the Rural Library District feels it should pay for only the 1,800 cards held by the residents of the fire districts.

As for the possibility of the city joining the Rural Library District, both sides believed doing so was not financially practical.

That option would have also required city residents to vote themselves into the existing taxing district and would have resulted in a new tax for city residents.

County residents currently pay a library tax of about 48 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The city funds the Walla Walla Library through its general fund.

On Monday from 5-7 p.m., the Walla Walla County Rural Library District Board will hold its regular monthly meeting, where it will discuss the district strategic plan and other items. The meeting is open to the public and will take place at the Plaza Way Branch at 1530 Plaza Way.

On July 16, the Walla Walla City Council will hear a report on the recent joint meetings at a work session. That meeting is open to the public and will start at 4 p.m. at the City Hall Council Chambers, 15 N. Third Ave.

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