In the face of a $2 million annual shortfall over the past decade, the Pierce County Library System needs to make a decision — raise taxes by $7 million a year or continue to cut programs and services.
An advisory committee recommended Wednesday that the system's board seek a 1-percent tax increase to remedy the deficit. Should the levy pass, the owner of a $317,000 house — the average home value in the library service district — would pay the system $158 in taxes next year, up from $129.
The hike is needed because people are clamoring for more services from libraries, not fewer, said the Community Advisory Committee on Library Funding, a 13-member panel made up of people in leadership roles across the county.
"The public wants it, and they want a lot more than what's being provided and, frankly, probably a lot more than can be funded," said committee member Tad Navle, a real estate broker who lives in the Bonney Lake area. "The demand is high."
The library board will vote in July on whether to forward the proposed tax increase to voters in November. The proposal, which will need support from three of the five board members, is expected to pass, said Mary Getchell, marketing and communications director for the library system.
Under state law, funding for libraries can't raise property taxes by more than 1 percent from the prior year. The advisory committee recommended the full increase, which is projected to sustain the county's 20 libraries for up to five years.
The library system operates on an annual budget of $32 million and last year served 602,000 people.
The advisory's committee met several times between March and June and made its decision on a tax increase based on polls, research, anecdotes and other factors.
"The large part was the focus on the value that the library provides to the community and to the patrons," said Scott Winship, an attorney and shareholder at Vandeberg Johnson and Gandara and a Steilacoom resident. "People are willing to pay for something that's valuable to them, so I think that resonated with the group."
The budget deficit stems from a growing population and a slowdown in revenue.
The population the library system serves increased 16 percent, growing by 82,000 people since 2006, the year of the most recent library funding hike. Revenue increased by 1.8 percent annually while costs were up 4.1, according to an analysis prepared by the library system.
To compensate for the $2 million annual budget shortfall, programs and resources were scaled back. Services, such as the bookmobile, book purchases and the online encyclopedia, were cut, 16 employees were laid off and other investments and building maintenance were delayed.
If the levy passes, Getchell said, the library system will spend the money on maintaining services. If it doesn't, reductions will be made in the number of books and movies available, library hours will be reduced and some libraries will be shut down, she said.
The advisory board was unanimous in deciding the tax hike is needed.
"It's unusual to find that degree of consensus surrounding any one issue, and so that's what gives me some optimism in regards to the levy," Winship said. "This is so valuable that it should be done."