Library system struggles amid economic crunch

It was inevitable. Directors of the Timberland Regional Library system have announced plans to cut costs and reduce library hours starting June 1.

The reductions in library services are not in retaliation for the loss of the library system’s ballot proposition in February. The reductions are a mere reflection of a five-county library district struggling financially to fill a $2.5 million, two-year budget gap. The financial crunch is caused by rising costs, fewer timber tax dollars and limits on property tax increases.

Voters had their say on this issue Feb. 3. Trustees for the district that operates 27 libraries in Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, asked voters to approve a levy lid increase from 32.9 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to a maximum of 50 cents per thousand. Taxes on a $200,000 home would have increased about $34 to $100 a year.

In the midst of the recession, a majority of voters rejected the property tax increase, forcing trustees to make the budget cuts.

The seven trustees already had done the easy things. They put a hiring freeze in place that has resulted in the loss of more than 18 staff positions. They ordered libraries to close on Sundays, reduced the number of hours for part-time employees and cut $162,000 from the $1 million spent annually to purchase new books, CDs and reference materials.

Forced into survival mode after the levy defeat and the need to cut another 13 percent from the operating budget, library trustees — Judy Weaver, Dick Nichols, Bob Hall, Jo-Ann Andrews, Edna Fund, John Braun and Stephen Hardy — held a series of community meetings throughout the district asking library patrons where additional cuts should come.

“We’re trying to act quickly now so our situation is brighter next year,” said Jeff Kleingartner, a district spokesman.

Further reduction of hours of service were ordered at 25 of the 27 libraries including all branches in Thurston County. Trustees standardized the Saturday hours at the Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Yelm libraries. The libraries will be open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. That makes sense and is easy for weekend patrons to remember.

The daily hours, however, are a real scramble. While the closing times vary depending on the day of the week, at least Tumwater and Lacey patrons can rely on the fact that their libraries will be open at 10 a.m. daily. Olympia opens at 11 a.m. every day except Saturday.

Gail Park, manager of Tumwater Regional Library, said she and her colleagues in South Sound struck an agreement so at least one library in the urban area will be open later during the week. While that makes sense, library patrons are going to have a difficult time figuring out closing hours that range from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the three main libraries.

No doubt, the new hours will take a bit of getting used to and so will the as yet to be drafted policies to charge for computer printouts and to charge fines for overdue books. The new fines or fees could be enacted this year or next year.

With fewer hours, most managers no longer will need to use substitutes or overtime hours to cover vacations, illnesses and emergencies. The district expects to save $600,000 a year as a result, Kleingartner said.

“We’re really sorry for the inconvenience it’s going to cause for some people’s schedules, but it’s a necessary move,” Kleingartner said.

Library trustees faced a difficult budget balancing act but clearly attempted to minimize the impact to library patrons. Library users now must adjust their expectations to match the district’s financial situation.