As Snohomish and Island County voters consider next month whether to approve a levy rate increase for the Sno-Isle library system, City of Edmonds officials have been asking pointed questions about why Edmonds taxpayers are paying more than other jurisdictions for library services.
The timing of those questions is a coincidence, and is in no way connected with the levy, city officials say.
“I’m a strong proponent of library system. I think they are providing excellent service to the our citizens,” said Edmonds City Councilmember Dave Teitzel, who began researching the topic through his work on the council’s finance committee.
“The city is not questioning the services we get from the library,” added City Finance Director Scott James, who also started looking into the issue last summer. “Sno-Isle provides an excellent service to the community and to the county. I don’t want this to be looking like we’re out picking a fight with Sno-Isle.”
Edmonds voters agreed in 2001 to approve annexation of the city-owned Edmonds Library, located at 650 Main St., into the Sno-Isle Libraries system. Woodway voters, on the other hand, opted not to join Sno-Isle and to this day Woodway residents don’t have Sno-Isle Libraries privileges.
How much Edmonds taxpayers contribute compared to other cities in the Sno-Isle system — and compared to how much the library system reinvests in the Edmonds Library itself — was initially raised several years ago by former Edmonds City Councilmember Frank Yamamoto. After Yamamoto resigned due to health concerns, the issue didn’t gain much traction, but Teitzel reintroduced it during a council finance committee meeting six months ago.
The basic issue is this: Higher average Edmonds home values mean that Edmonds property owners are assessed more than those in other Sno-Isle cities. Or as Teitzel puts it, “We are the victim of our own success.”
But it isn’t just the amount that Edmonds taxpayers pay into the system that has officials asking questions.
According to James, in the past 11 years, Edmonds property owners have been assessed a total of $6.5 million more than it costs to operate the Edmonds Library. That figure is based on Sno-Isle tax assessments to Edmonds minus Sno-Isle expenses for Edmonds.
“On a 2016 basis we were contributing $600,000 more than we received in investment based on 38 cents of assessed value (per thousand),” Teitzel added. If voters approve the library system’s April 24 proposal to increase the levy amount to 47 cents, “that level of contribution will increase to about $1.4 million for Edmonds, so that kind of magnifies the funding disparity,” he said.
With the pending levy vote (ballots will be mailed to homes April 5), the question of investment versus return is being raised by some Edmonds taxpayers. And while he reiterated his support for the work the library system does, Teitzel acknowledged that the discrepancy has become an election issue.
“I’m not opposed to the levy per se,” he stressed. “I understand that Sno-Isle needs revenue. The only issue I have is that it is disproportionate, and that contribution will increase as the levy is passed.”
According to 2016 figures, Edmonds, with a population of 40,900, was assessed nearly $3.3 million ($3,260,780) for library services while Marysville, with a population of 64,940, was assessed just under $2.6 million. Lynnwood, population 36,590, was assessed nearly $2.3 million.
In contrast, the amount reinvested into those libraries by Sno-Isle, according to library system figures, was $4.1 million for Marysville ($1.5 million more invested than assessed), $5.2 million for Lynnwood (close to $3 million more than assessed), and $2.6 million for Edmonds ($601,000 less than assessed).
In an interview Thurday, Sno-Isle Libraries Executive Director Jonalyn Woolf-Ivory acknowledged the difference in assessments and expenditures among the 23 cities that comprise the Sno-Isle system. But she said the library district looks at the dollars invested district-wide, similar to the way one would view a school district. “We are not looking at each school compared to a school down the street,” she said.
Sno-Isle’s commitment, she said, “is to provide the best service we can to all residents of the library district.” And one of the ways it does that is by leveraging the ability to share services throughout the system, she added.
Library services can vary from community to community, depending on need, but the goal is to ensure that all residents have equal access to materials that are available throughout the library district, Woolf-Ivory said. In some cases, this means borrowing materials from other branches or using a library in a different city. The library also prides itself in adapting its programming to changing needs, such as ensuring that preschool library programs are aligned with early childhood education priorities, and providing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities for students.
And while City of Edmonds officials are pointing to the difference between tax dollars assessed vs. library investments, Woolf-Ivory said Sno-Isle is not hearing concerns from Edmonds library users about the level of service they are receiving.
As a follow-up to the issues raised, City of Edmonds and Sno-Ise Libraries officials met Wednesday afternoon, March 28, to talk about options for resolving the financial discrepancy.
Teitzel described the meeting as an effort “to explore what can be done to make this more equitable for citizens.”
Finance Director Scott James said that one idea the city has raised was the possibility of having the library system contribute — through an existing reserve fund — money toward repairing the leaky Edmonds Library roof.
As part of the voter-approved 2001 annexation agreement, the city maintains ownership of the library building and is responsible for outside maintenance, while Sno-Isle maintains the building interior. The agreement included a cost-sharing arrangement for roof repair that would need approval both from the city council and the Sno-Isle board of trustees.
Library officials said that no specific suggestions or recommendations were made as a result of Wednesday’s meeting.
“For us right now, we’re really focused on making sure that all of our residents have enough knowledge about our upcoming levy election,” Woolf-Ivory said. “We didn’t leave the meeting with another meeting planned or an agenda. We all left with an understanding of what each of our roles are.”
If voters approve the April 24 levy, it would maintain current library services. A levy rejection would result in a $2 million reduction in the Sno-Isle Libraries budget in 2019, followed by a continued decrease in subsequent years.
A levy failure would mean “reducing services in each of our community libraries,” Woolf-Ivory said. “Libraries will be open fewer hours, we will be purchasing fewer materials, we will not be able to maintain our technology.”
Teitzel said he feels an obligation, as an elected official, “to look out for the best interests of all Edmonds citizens — library users and non-users alike.” And while he understands the concept of comparing the library district to a school district, he noted that the Sno-Isle system has a much larger geographic scope.
“The tax dollars are in effect underwriting (places like) Whidbey Island and Darrington that are quite a distance removed from Edmonds geographically,” he said.
The bigger issue, though, is the number of tax increases Edmonds voters are experiencing, from the recently approved Sound Transit 3 and Edmonds School District ballot measures, to upcoming taxes related to a new SERS emergency radio system.
“I think taxpayers are just worn out,” James said.
Sno-Isle Libraries is hosting a library operations levy open house at the Edmonds Library on Monday, April 2, from 6-7 p.m. Staff will be available to answer questions and share information about the levy and library funding. The Edmonds Library is located at 650 Main St.
— By Teresa Wippel