Sunday, October 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Q&A: Why city cut mobile library from 2005 budget

Seattle Times staff reporter

No issue in Mayor Greg Nickels' 2005 city budget has provoked as much protest as the proposal to eliminate the Seattle Public Library's bookmobile services.

From Gaylee Shelton, who organized a demonstration by residents in a North Seattle retirement home, to Omari Tahir-Garrett, who recently got out of jail for assaulting then-Mayor Paul Schell, Seattleites have loudly registered their complaints with the City Council and bombarded their offices with e-mails, letters and calls.

"It's the issue people are most passionate about. It's a service cut that impacts the most vulnerable, the disabled and children," Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said.

It's also an issue that has been misunderstood. For example, citizens have said the city shouldn't have spent $165 million on the new Central Library if it couldn't maintain basic services such as the bookmobile. But that criticism ignores the fact that the bookmobile and new library are financed by different sources of taxpayer money that can't be mingled.

The confusion led the Mayor's Office to take the unusual step of putting out a "budget fact sheet" that stressed the Seattle Public Library would actually get an 8 percent budget increase next year.

Here are the answers to some other questions that have come up in the debate over the library:

Q: In explaining the finances behind the bookmobile cut, the Library Board of Directors sent out a letter saying the "city's revenue has dramatically declined." Is that right?

A: No. The city's revenue increased every year in the last decade and will increase next year by about $11 million, according to city projections. Under the mayor's proposal, the library would get about $2.86 million more in 2005 than in 2004 — the 8 percent budget increase. By comparison, the police and fire departments would see 2 and 3 percent increases, respectively, in their budgets, while the parks budget would decrease by 8 percent under the mayor's proposal.

Q: Then why is the library cutting the bookmobile?

A: Despite overall revenue increases, the city is having trouble keeping up with the rising cost of maintaining services. New and bigger libraries are opening as a result of the $196 million library levy voters approved in 1998, and these libraries cost more to operate. The Central Library costs about $2 million more per year to operate, according to council analysis. Therefore the library budget, despite the 8 percent increase, faces a $2 million gap between what the mayor would give it and what it costs to maintain existing services.

Q: But why not cut something else?

A: The library did cut elsewhere, reducing administrative spending and the government-document program by $1 million. City Librarian Deborah Jacobs and the Library Board have said eliminating the bookmobile was better than the remaining options. The board says the book budget has been cut 28 percent since 2000 so it did not want to trim it further. Jacobs did not want to close down the entire system for weeks, as the library did in recent years, or reduce hours at branch libraries.

Q: What does it cost to operate the bookmobile?

A: It costs about $800,000 a year, and to keep it operating all branch libraries would have to close one full day a week throughout the year, according to the Library Board.

Q: What's the money spent on?

A: Mostly on salaries: $751,268 of the program's $816,702 budget goes toward salaries for 13 full- and part-time positions, according to council analysis. Two vehicles — one bookmobile and one van — are usually in operation during the week.

Q: Who does the bookmobile serve and how many books does it circulate?

A: It serves 227 people who are homebound, 94 preschool and day-care centers and 133 facilities for seniors and disabled adults. It circulated 128,695 books, videos and discs last year. Jacobs maintains that she will find a way to continue serving the library's disabled and homebound patrons.

Q: How does that compare to other library facilities?

A: Branch libraries distributed far more materials — 4.9 million in all — at a lower cost. The average cost of circulating a book by the branch libraries last year was $2.44, according to council analysis. It cost about $7 to circulate a book by mobile services.

Q: How does the librarian propose to serve homebound and disabled patrons without the bookmobile?

A: Those options are not fleshed out, but the librarian has suggested that homebound patrons could receive books through the mail and the library could provide senior residential facilities with specific instruction on how to ride the bus to a branch library.

Q: Is cutting the bookmobile a political ploy? Is it being cut because the council would face intense pressure to restore it?

A: It's hard to know for sure. Jacobs has said this is a tough choice but the best one given the circumstances. The mayor has taken a public-relations beating on the issue, so it's hard to conclude he approved it for strategic reasons. City Council members, such as Steinbrueck, doubt that it was a ploy. Plus, it's not certain the council will restore the bookmobile. "Even if we had $800,000, the question is whether we would put it in (the bookmobile) carte blanche," Council President Jan Drago said.

Q: What happens in other cities?

A: Public libraries in Boston, Vancouver, B.C., Portland, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego and many other cities do not have bookmobiles. Seattleites also spent $81.83 per capita last year on their public libraries, which is more than citizens in any similarly sized city, according to the American Library Association.

Q: What's next?

A: The council must approve a budget by December. Several questions and proposals have surfaced.

Drago says she wants more information about which patrons are mobile and which ones aren't before she makes a decision.

Steinbrueck complained about the high personnel costs of the service and suggested it was "top heavy" and could be maintained at a lower cost.

Council members Tom Rasmussen and Jean Godden have floated the idea of partly financing the bookmobile next year while the library comes up with a less expensive way of maintaining the service.

Rasmussen and Steinbrueck also said they would support the idea of closing smaller branch libraries one day a week throughout the year to preserve bookmobile services.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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