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Wednesday, March 7, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Turf Wars Spread To Libraries -- Cities Reconsidering Links To County System

When public officials began talking about moving the Mercer Island Library from a residential neighborhood to the downtown business district, citizens protested. They wanted to keep the library where it was.

It's hard to think of any other kind of public facility that citizens would want in their neighborhood. In a contentious, ``not in my back yard'' world of growth, libraries have been one of the last bastions of civility.

No longer.

The suburban libraries of King County have become one more field on which battles are being fought over service levels, tax equity and local control vs. regional authority. It is a struggle that mirrors the more familiar conflicts over zoning, roads and utilities.

At the center of the debate is the King County Library System, which operates libraries in unincorporated areas and in cities that choose to join the system or to contract for services.

The library system wants more money from the contract cities, a prospect that has prompted the cities to reassess the relationship.

The responses have varied widely. Bellevue, Bothell, North Bend and the new cities of SeaTac and Federal Way have annexed to the library district, turning control of their libraries over to the regional authority. Kirkland and Redmond plan to put the annexation question before voters.

Others, including Mercer Island, Des Moines and Tukwila, are commissioning a joint study that they hope will bolster their case against the county's planned rate increase. If they fail in their bid for a better deal, they may consider breaking away from the largest library system west of Chicago and north of Los Angeles.

Then there's Renton, so fiercely independent that it won't lend books to nonresidents. Renton residents, in turn, are denied library privileges at county libraries. If more libraries take the path blazed by Renton, some observers fear, library service in the suburbs will become a hodgepodge of independent fiefdoms.

The King County Library System is in no danger of falling apart completely. But, even as it runs into conflict with its clients, the library system is undertaking the greatest expansion in its history.

That expansion, with regional libraries in Bothell and Federal Way and a ``flagship'' library in Bellevue, promises to bring a vastly expanded book collection and 21st-century technology to a library system overwhelmed by population growth.

Even critics give the county's librarians high marks for building a quality system. But they wonder if they're being asked to pay more than their fair share. Some fear the powers of an independent taxing authority, the King County Library Board, whose members are appointed to five-year terms by the county executive.

``That's the structure WPPSS was under,'' says Jim Horn, Mercer Island city councilman and state representative from the 41st District.

``It's a little bit like a benevolent dictatorship. If things are working well, everybody's happy. If it's bad, you have no recourse.''

The Library Board's independence is intended to insulate it from the shifting political winds that have kept controversial but important materials off the shelves of libraries elsewhere. But the power that comes with that independence makes suburban politicians like Horn reluctant to give up local control through annexation to the library district.

The more immediate concern is the Library Board's plan to increase the service fees paid by contract cities. Up to now, the cities have paid a negotiated amount. The new rates would be equal to property taxes of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation - the amount property owners in the unincorporated county pay for library services.

It's a tax-equity plan that makes sense from the library district's point of view - but not from some suburban cities' perspective. Because the property tax base is so much higher in wealthier cities, the new contract formula means city residents will pay more per capita for library service.

Mercer Island officials calculated that residents of unincorporated areas paid an average of less than $18 per person in library taxes in 1988. Under the district's new formula, Medina residents would have paid $64 per person, Tukwila residents $101.

Unless the plan is modified, Tukwila's total library bill could rise from the current $104,000 to $1 million by 1993. At a recent Tukwila City Council meeting, City Administrator John McFarland reports, ``the comment was made that they have yet to see their assessed valuation walk home to read a book.

``Perhaps another way to assess funding for library services is per capita. It's the residential population that patronizes the libraries, not buildings.''

Because most of Tukwila's $1 million bill would be paid by Southcenter-area businesses and industries, Bill Ptacek, King County Library Services Director, argues that McFarland's analysis is misleading. Tukwila's library bill ultimately would be paid by everyone who works or shops in the city.

As for predominantly residential Mercer Island, Ptacek notes, it's simply a fact of assessed-valuation-based formulas that affluent communities pay more than their neighbors.

Ptacek hopes to work out an amicable solution without caving in to the cities' demands for cheaper library service. Providing more up-to-date electronic technologies may be one part of the solution.

``We're anxious to work with the cities and see how we can improve library services and make sure they're getting a good deal,'' says the library director. ``There are lots of things we can look at - better libraries in those area, maybe a regional library in Tukwila.''

Kirkland voters have been promised a new, modern library if they approve annexation to the county system in May. Redmond is expecting a district-financed library expansion in addition to construction of a Pine Lake branch east of Lake Sammamish.

Most of the construction projects will be financed through the $67 million bond issue passed by library district voters in 1988. Ptacek says the improvements are being made to accommodate population growth, not to induce the Eastside cities to join the district.

Only four King County cities - Seattle, Renton, Auburn and Enumclaw - operate their own library systems. All but Renton have agreements with King County to allow residents to use each other's libraries. ``Reciprocal borrowing'' is important to the smaller systems because it gives them access to the 1.5 million-plus volumes in the county system.

Renton's fierce independence reflects a belief that the city can get more library for its money on its own. It also reflects the high value that city officials place on self-reliance.

``Renton has been our own little self-contained city for many years,'' says Mayor Earl Clymer. ``We have our own water system. We had our own sewer system until we were forced to join Metro. Everything about Renton is a self-contained little system. We've never considered joining the King County Library System.''

Despite its efforts to build the best collection its money can buy, Renton illustrates the problems with a radical, go-it-alone approach. At one time, King County residents could buy Renton library cards and vice versa. Clark Petersen, Renton library director, was disturbed by county residents' heavy use of his library: ``These people were skimming off the very best in our collections. What's the point in it?''

Libraries are emotional issues. The invisible ``Berlin Wall'' separating the Renton and King County systems has thrown a monkey wrench into the drive to annex Fairwood into the city. Many Fairwood residents are reluctant to support annexation if it means they will be shut out of King County's popular Fairwood Library.

Although Renton library patrons can obtain books from other library systems through interlibrary loans, the process is far more cumbersome than loans within the King County system. The Renton system handled only 540 interlibrary loans last year, while the King County-operated Kirkland Library handled 4,683.

Officials in several cities that contract with the King County system offer high praise to that system and say they would be reluctant to sever their ties with it. Kirkland officials were approached by Mercer Island about possible creation of an independent system. After a detailed study, Kirkland's Library Board and city administration opted for annexation.

``We didn't feel that we could approach the current level of service if we went to an independent library,'' says Assistant City Manager Andy Barton.

If annexation passes, Kirkland will strengthen its ties to a highly rated library system but will give up direct control over one more aspect of community life to a regional board. With growing pressures to move to regional services, it's the kind of tough choice that cities must make in many areas.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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