Monday, August 31, 2009

Library: From Top Priority To Something Less

About 8 years ago, the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee completed over 2 years of work in evaluating the City's future needs and methods available to fund them.
Public Works projects were excluded because these needs are generally met from revenues collected from services, like water, sewer, stormwater, etc.
The main focus was on public facilities that need to maintained or expanded and modernized for future needs, like libraries, museums, Mt Baker Theater and the like, which rely largely upon public funding approved by special public ballot.

As it turned out, the Bellingham Public Library was identified as the top priority in the Committee's final report, since the existing facilities were nearing capacity and in need of serious upgrading to handle modern electronic and Internet systems.
Also, libraries usually require a separate bond issue to build facilities as well as reliable revenues with which to hire staff and buy books, equipment and materials.

One unexpected finding was the possible availability of another funding mechanism for facilities which are deemed part of a 'regional center' that enhances economic development in our area.
For qualifying projects, the State of Washington actually rebates part of the sales taxes already collected from an area and makes these funds available to pay for them.

What happened here was that Bellingham & Whatcom County joined to create a Public Facilities District to sponsor improving our existing cultural center in the downtown, and over $10 million in funds were received to pay for projects to achieve this goal.
This has been quite a success story that uses taxes already paid.
The main beneficiaries have been the Museum and the Mt Baker Theater, each of which has been upgraded and improved after a very careful and public process.
The most recent and visible example is the new Children's Museum.
The Mt Baker Theater improvements aren't quite so visible, but the extensive electrical and HVAC improvements are necessary for its continued use and maintenance.

The Bellingham Public Library was not a part of the PFD projects, and must be addressed by its own process and funding sources.
It is unfortunate that the BPL has to wait through some tough economic times before necessary modernization and expansion can take place.
It is also unfortunate that the severe budget crunch has made it necessary to reduce the BP Library's staffing so drastically, but that does serve to point out the importance both of efficient building design and library system structure.
Both elements do impact operation costs, as well as capital costs, which is the main point of this posting

The main Library building, although too small for current needs, has two entrances which requires some duplicate staffing.
And, each branch library also requires its own staffing as well as separate facilities which must be maintained, built or leased.
The point is, any distributed system is more likely to be more costly than a basic centralized system, and that is true regardless of public preferences.
In any case, a central library facility, adequately sized and equipped, is the necessary heart of a library system.
BPL is trying valiantly to serve that function, but needs our understanding and help in doing so for the future.

Some have suggested that BPL and the Whatcom County Library system, with its 8 or 9 branches, combine for efficiency.
These libraries are already fully cooperating and collaborating, but because they are separate entities by law, can't simply combine.
First, these organizations have different levels of service, as might be expected when contrasting urban and rural areas.
Second, applicable laws and funding mechanisms would need to be significantly changed, and this would take time and considerable effort even it were deemed desirable.
Essentially, if combining the BPL and WCL were to happen, a new central facility would be needed even more to adequately service the various branches.
If that's what the public wants, its OK - but the public must find a way to pay for it.
That is the bottom line.

In the meantime, enjoy the debate. Who knows, you might be the one with the bright idea that help solve the problem!

A few pertinent links:

Seattle's budget crisis forced Library closures, too.
Overdoing the Library's closure week

More Budget Cuts For Bellingham Library

With budget cuts, layoffs, Bellingham parks and library services decrease