Bondage

Supporters of the library find themselves in a bind.

Everyone loves the library, but no one likes a bigger tax bill.

Seattle voters will decide in November on a proposed $196.4 million bond issue to build a new downtown library and fund improvements at all 22 neighborhood branches. The pro-bond organization Neighbors for Libraries kicked off its campaign last Wednesday with a rally at the old Beacon Hill library, which is slated for replacement under the plan.

"It's a wonderful proposal and it's a delight to be able to campaign for something that you really believe in," says Tim Clifford, a board member of Friends of the Library and a regular reader for the Green Lake Library's children's story nights.

Although the library bond campaign faces the tough job of gaining a 60 percent supermajority of city voters for passage, it probably won't face competition from an alternative funding plan for library improvements. Supporters of Initiative 45—the alternative plan—didn't submit enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot on their first try. So unless the Seattle City Council takes the unlikely action of placing Initiative 45 on the ballot, the library bond—officially known as Seattle Proposition No. 1—will go it alone in November.

If approved, the bond money would be combined with $40 million in private donations to fund a $156.1 million central library on the site of the current '60s-vintage structure at Fourth and Madison. The new library would be larger (355,000 square feet, as compared to the current 206,000 square feet), better organized, and wired for an expanded collection of computer and telecommunications equipment. It would also include a 275-seat auditorium. The plan would replace six existing branch libraries and create new branches in Northgate, Delridge, and the International District. The bond would also raise $5.6 million for system technology improvements and create a $6 million opportunity fund for future library needs.

The cost of the package to the owner of a $200,000 home would be about $60 annually for the next 25 years.

If promoting the library bond is like selling sunshine and rainbows, fighting it involves creating a cloud bank of tax worries. Opponents predict that the city will make many more attempts to increase property taxes over the next 25 years and say basic services like libraries shouldn't be funded through ballot issues. They complain that the proposed downtown facility will soak up almost two-thirds of the money raised, at the expense of neighborhood branch libraries—not as bad a disparity as that in the unsuccessful 1994 library bond proposal, but unacceptable nonetheless. Opponents also believe that a better funding source would be councilmanic bonds (non-voter-approved bonds issued by a majority council vote). However, the city's councilmanic bond capacity has been depleted by issuances to fund KeyArena improvements and the Nordstrom parking garage.

Initiative 45 would have mandated a similar councilmanic debt-based funding plan, and some opponents expressed disappointment that voters probably won't be able to choose between the two plans. "I wanted very much to have two contrasting library issues on the ballot," says bond opponent Alan Deright.

When Initiative 45 backers fell short and were forced to resume signature-gathering efforts, important deadlines slipped by. The initiative was certified on August 24, setting into motion a 45-day period (until October 8) for the council to take formal action. Since the deadline for placing issues on the November ballot is September 21, the council can keep the initiative off this year's ballot simply by taking no action. Under city charter provisions, the initiative would automatically be placed on the September 1999 primary election ballot.

The initiative has been mired in controversy from the start. Although proposed by a noted neighborhood activist, Jordan Brower, other neighborhood leaders have opposed the measure. Some have also charged that paid signature gatherers misled citizens into signing Initiative 45. "I think there was a lot of misinformation," says Seattle City Council president Sue Donaldson. "I think people thought they were signing an initiative supporting the city's plan." A special Saturday council public hearing will be held on Initiative 45 on September 19 at Miller Community Center, 330 19th East.

Bond supporters say the library proposal is a great improvement over the unsuccessful 1994 proposal because the current proposal has an expanded neighborhood library component, and because almost 100 public meetings were held to help draft the proposal. "If citizens didn't get input on this plan, it isn't because the library didn't try," says Toni Reineke, a Friends of the Library board member and volunteer for the pro-bond campaign.

 
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