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Originally published Monday, July 16, 2012 at 5:25 PM

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Libraries deserve a better funding system than levy

Seattle proposal for a seven-year library levy is the wrong way to fund such an essential service.

Seattle Times Editorial

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A SEVEN-YEAR Seattle Library Levy is the wrong way to pay for an essential day-to-day service.

Free public libraries are an essential service. They are about reading, which is about education, personal achievement, and democracy. Because libraries are such good things, they should not be offered up to voters in politically constructed take-it-or-leave-it choices.

That is what has happened with the public schools. Their levies, which were supposed to be for extras, are now needed to keep the doors open. Let's not do this with libraries.

Special property-tax levies should be requested mainly for big one-time expenses. An example on the Aug. 7 ballot is the King County levy for juvenile courtrooms and jail. An example on the Nov. 6 ballot in Seattle is a levy to rebuild a critical seawall holding up Seattle's waterfront. Another example was Seattle's libraries levy of a decade ago. It was for buildings.

Seattle also has the Housing Levy and the Families and Education Levy. These are for optional programs that most other cities don't have.

This current levy proposal is mostly for libraries' day-to-day expenses, and these are neither optional nor one-time. They are essential and ongoing. They should be paid from general taxes, the same as police and fire services.

Funding library operations through levies opens the door to an egregious type of cost shifting. Libraries already have money going to them. If the voters add new money, the City Council can take out some of the old money and spend it on something else. In fact, it plans to do that. The levy would raise $17 million next year, but $5 million of it would replace money diverted to another part of government. So it's really a seven-tenths library levy.

Think, too, about why the levy is offered for libraries and not for any of a dozen other city functions. Seattle does not have a homeless services levy or a city labor contract levy or a levy to fund the Department of Environment and Sustainability. It has a library levy. Why? Because libraries are popular and people will vote for them.

Most times, people should vote for measures about libraries. But a levy for day-to-day operations is different. Saying no creates an opportunity to send a message to the City Council: You fund it — or not. Make your decision and explain yourself to the voters.

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