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Library Annexation Special Report: No easy decision as citizens vote on Renton library future
With February’s ballots in the mail, library patrons and city officials couldn’t agree more on how well the Renton Library has done or disagree more on its future.
“I think people are getting close to taking a vote,” said City Council member Randy Corman. “They’re clearly taking up sides and taking up information and sharing information.”
Residents will decide Feb. 9 whether to annex its Renton Public Library to the King County Library System or to remain under city control with hope that a new city levy will improve the struggling library.
Facing budget cuts and higher demand, most of the City Council favors leaving necessary growth and improvements to KCLS.
Meanwhile, library patrons favor keeping services local and improvements under city control.
Council members shared their heartache over their own decision t
to support annexation.
“I can tell you within my household there are disparities on how we’re going to vote on this,” Corman said.
Meanwhile, patrons accused the City Council of not trying hard enough to find alternative solutions.
“They’re ducking the issue,” said Kim Thomas, who opposed the annexation in a public debate at a recent City Council meeting. “I don’t want to pay more taxes if there hasn’t been more work by the city to see if we can do this better ourselves.”
The two sides face off on a gambit of issues, often giving different conclusions on the same facts. A few have risen to the surface.
The cost of improving the library compared to annexing to KCLS is uncertain, but each group has a different interpretation of the numbers.
Supporters argue in the long term an annexation would cost 6 to 9 percent less than improving the library with money from a levy.
However, those against the annexation say the KCLS tax levy would be in addition to what Renton residents are already giving the city, which is $104 a year.
“If I’m going to pay more taxes, I rather them go to the local leadership then a huge bureaucracy that really won’t care about Renton,” said Marcie Palmer, the only City Council member opposing annexation.
KCLS boasts of being one of the top three most-used libraries in the nation, with millions of books, periodicals and databases.
“It’s economy of scale. They funded their library better than Renton has for years,” said Peter Hartley, a Library Board member who supported annexation in the council’s public debate. “They’re able to spend $3 to $4 million a year on their tutoring services.”
A reciprocal borrowing agreement allows Renton residents to use KCLS’s services, but that costly agreement is going to be renegotiated to reduce services or remove them altogether, he said.
“From my perspective, right now the Renton residents have the best of both worlds,” Thomas said.
Supporters of the library argue that it’s harder to get popular materials at KCLS. It can take months to make it to the top of a KCLS hold list.
“I hear over and over from people who use both of them that they come to Renton because they can find it (books) on the shelf,” Palmer said.
It’s also easier for Renton librarians to implement new programming and order materials based on need.
“They’re aware of certain things, like when their students have reports coming out,” Thomas said.
Many of the librarians have a long history at the Renton library, Palmer said.
“They know the people that come in by name,” she said. “They know the kids, because parents bring them in when they’re little, and they watch them grow up. You don’t get that at KCLS.”
The environment is less sterile and more about customer service, Palmer said. “It’s just a different mindset.”
KCLS is a master of community outreach, Hartley said.
“There are just tons and tons of programs within that outreach sort of philosophy that they use to really support a community,” he said.
KCLS has also rated above Costco and Nordstrom in customer service, said KCLS director Bill Ptacek. “We have really good service.”
KCLS establishes library boards, approved by city councils, to give input.
“That advisory board in turn advises the Board of Trustees for the entire library system,” Hartley said. “The board doesn’t have any control, just like the Renton (library) board works in a form of advisory.”
Currently residents can go to the City Council or the Library Board to have their voices heard.
“It’s almost impossible to influence KCLS out of a decision they’ve already made,” Palmer said.
For opponents of the annexation, it’s also about keeping money in town.
“If we’re going to pay for it (new library) ourselves, why don’t we control it ourselves?” Thomas said.
If the city votes to annex, KCLS would begin making changes to the Renton library immediately. It could take a few years before a city levy could bring in money.
If Renton doesn’t annex, the city will cut back hours and lay off several part-time employees.
However, Renton Library supporters say they’re willing to wait for a new tax to pass.
“It’s not particularly shocking that the library has to make some cuts,” Thomas said. “I think the residents can hold out.”