Over the past two decades the Renton Public Library has seen continual budget cuts, while city annexations have increased demand for services.
“For decades the library has been underfunded,” said Renton Mayor Denis Law. “It’s kind of a financial dilemma for us to continue to provide adequate service, let alone quality services.”
The struggling library is at a crossroad. Renton residents must decide whether to annex to the King County Library System or pass a levy to upgrade its library services. The annexation vote is Feb. 9.
Meanwhile, loyal users wonder how the library got to this point.
“There was a period when the Renton Public Library was better supported than the King County Library System,” said former library director Clark Petersen, recalling the 1970s. “Renton was open… more hours than any other library in King County.”
Today, KCLS competes with two New York systems for the title of busiest library system in the nation.
KCLS broke out of its rural library shell in the 1960s with a state law that allowed city annexations, said KCLS director Bill Ptacek.
Now KCLS serves 1.2 million residents with extensive electronic offerings and adult programming.
While KCLS grew, the Renton Library System saw its first major cut in 1979, from which it never recovered, Petersen said. A state initiative had rolled back property taxes, and the whole city was hit with cuts, he said.
“That meant that the library board … closed its library on Sunday,” he said, adding the library hasn’t been open on a Sunday since.
When it comes to city cuts, firefighters, police and transportation are more important, Law said. “You have a pie to divvy up, and the library hasn’t resonated to the top of high city services.”
Renton’s library saw cuts whenever the city saw them but had little growth.
“Each time we lost librarians from the staff, we never got them back,” Petersen said, adding “the subtle thing to do is not to increase the budget at the inflation rate.”
Unlike Renton’s library, which opened in 1914, KCLS has its own tax levy and is independent from county rule.
Petersen, director from 1970 to 2004, tried to propose a levy for the library, but the idea was tossed out on the spot. The amount was too insignificant for how much effort it would take to pass, he said.
In 2007 Renton’s economy had a strong outlook; Boeing was strong and The Landing was under construction.
But before giving the library more money, the city wanted a plan, said current library director Bette Anderson of Renton’s library. “For several years there was recognition that the library system needed to be developed.”
A consultant group published a Master Plan in early 2008, offering recommendations for library improvements.
The plan “was based on a combination of what the public would like and what the economy could afford,” she said.
Although the consulting firm considered a potential KCLS annexation, it recommended that Renton stay independent.
However, the plan’s affordability was based on a positive economic outlook. The economy tanked after the 2008 report was published.
Library services were also becoming more costly.
In 1996, Petersen established a reciprocal borrowing agreement, which allowed Renton residents to use KCLS libraries.
The assumption was that the cross-use between the two systems was a wash; neither group charged for its services, Anderson said.
However, KCLS began re-evaluating the agreement, and in 2008 it put a price on the reciprocal agreement, $79,000.
It seemed manageable at first. Then Benson Hill annexed in 2008. KCLS adjusted the price to $278,000, a significant portion of the $1.8 million 2009 budget.
Facing deeper cuts for 2010, Renton City Council decided to put the KCLS annexation decision on the Feb. 9 ballot.
Residents “want enhanced library services that we haven’t been able to provide that we feel KCLS can provide,” Law said.
If the city doesn’t annex, city lawmakers plan to consider a special tax levy, which would almost double the library’s operating budget.
Law doesn’t plan to consider a levy anytime soon, given the economy, he said.
“February is a crossroads both for Renton and the King County Library System,” Petersen said. “We’ll see what the people are thinking.”