Outrage Overdue

WHAT THIS LIBRARY needs is a little noise. Instead, everyone is remaining mum while the Seattle Public Library's doors are shuttered and its hours are reduced.

Seattle loves its libraries. Last year, Seattle's libraries circulated over 6 million items, up from 5.4 million the year before. In 1998 we approved $196 million in new taxes to build new libraries and renovate old ones all over the city—at the time, it was the biggest levy for libraries in the nation's history.

So why don't we raise a stink when our libraries are forced to shut down?

Right now, all the city's libraries are closed. They will reopen after a one-week furlough on Dec. 26. Libraries also were closed for a week in August. They haven't been shut down for this long since 1918. The reason? Last year, Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council slashed the library's budget by nearly 5 percent in order to help close the city's $12 million budget shortfall. Deborah Jacobs, the city librarian, sat down with her staff and figured out how best to preserve service to the public under these circumstances. By taking two one-week furloughs, Jacobs found that she could save the necessary $1.8 million, while losing 2,571 hours of operation. The other way to get to $1.8 million was to close all the branches every Friday throughout the year, but that would have resulted in 8,164 lost hours of service. Next, Jacobs went to the library-workers union and asked all of her 640 employees to lose two weeks of pay and vacation and retirement benefits. It's a tribute to her leadership that they agreed.

Next year, things will be even worse. In 2003, the library has to make an 11.8 percent cut in its budget to help close the city's $60 million deficit. Last week, the library board approved a two-week furlough and cut back hours across the board for a total of 11,764 fewer hours next year in order to save around $2.5 million. Again, the union has accepted a reduction in pay and benefits for its membership.

SOMEBODY NEEDS TO stand up and say this is unacceptable. The libraries are unbelievably cheap to operate. You mean to tell me the mayor and City Council couldn't squeeze another $2.5 million out of the city's $638 million general fund? It would have been easy to find the $500,000. That's how much the mayor increased his own personal staff budget for 2003.

The mayor's office really didn't have much to say about the library cutbacks. Marianne Bischel, the mayor's spokesperson, told me to talk to the city librarian. She reminded me, "The library board makes the decisions on" hours "and how to absorb budget cuts." Evidently, the mayor wants to be in charge except when it's more convenient to pass the buck.

No members of the Seattle City Council's library committee were available for comment.

The union leadership praises Jacobs and doesn't want to rock the boat. Last week, the union held a toy drive and march, led by Santa Claus, in order to "highlight the impact" of reduced services on children. When I characterized the event as a "protest," union president Carrie Tuckwood quickly corrected me, saying, "We are staying positive."

THE SEATTLE Library Board of Trustees is the five-member independent body that has ultimate authority over the library's operation. At last week's meeting, where the board approved the cutbacks, not a single member raised a peep of protest. Instead they "stayed positive," praising Jacobs and the union, never mentioning the reduced funding from the city's political leaders. (By the way, the board members are nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council.)

Not a single member of the public showed up for the public-comment period of the board's meeting.

It's too damn quiet in this library. If somebody doesn't start making a fuss, our leaders will assume the cutbacks don't bother us at all.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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