Monday, December 10, 2018

The Timberland Library Capital Facility Proposal was a reflection of our current reality

Timberland counties have changed a lot since the 1960s. Thurston County used to be about the same size as the other four counties. Now, all four combined are smaller than Thurston County.
So far, the dominant narrative about the now shelved Timberland Library capital facility proposal has been about the possible closures and consolidations of rural libraries. Hardly anywhere in the coverage is a good understanding of the balance of where Timberland's revenues come from and how that money is spent. It has been just calmly accepted that closing any rural library is a sin, notwithstanding gaps in service in other parts of the five county district.

Here's a link to the draft proposal. It generally calls for consolidation of rural libraries buildings and the roll out of different types of library models (like Open+) that could have expanded hours.

During my tenure (between 2010 and 2016) on the Timberland board, we had to twice explain to east Lewis County communities that despite them voting to annex into the district that we would not automatically open libraries in their cities. Toledo and Morton both annexed, and because of the nature of the district (TRL doesn't build libraries inside cities) and the budget (pretty thin), there was no way we'd vote to open new buildings.

The capital facilities proposal would have helped the board take a look at the hard issues of where to spend money, but unfortunately, the board of trustees put it back on the shelf in favor of what will probably be across he board budget cuts.

The capital facilities plan itself wasn't a step back from serving rural communities, but a recognition of how the demographics of the district have changed and how library services have changed. It was also an acknowledgment that for decades the district has served some rural areas at the detriment of others.

I saw this process fold out slow motion when we were discussing the future of library services in Amanda Park. We had the option to close or drastically scale back services there because of some facilities issues with the library building. Stepping back from Amanda Park would have allowed the district to provide some service to the North Coast (Taholah down to outside Ocean Shores), which has always been part of Timberland but has never been directly served. But at almost the last minute, Grays Harbor County came through with funding to save the Amanda Park library and services there, and dooming any expansion into the North Coast.

So, there's that, the choosing of one rural community over the other. Additionally, there is also the seemingly forced ignorance of leaders and activists in rural communities of how the library is even funded.

Take this passage from Brian Mittge in the Centralia Chronicle:
Timberland’s professional library administrators in their Tumwater headquarters should spend a lot more time out in their rural communities. They had planned an elaborate set of listening sessions. Maybe instead of that, they should also spend some time in the Randle mill a half mile from their library. Or go in the woods with some of those namesake loggers whose revenue still pays for a big chunk of Timberland’s operations.
Timber funds pay for less than 10 percent of Timberland's budget and have been a shrinking part of the revenue stream for years. They are also extremely volatile, meaning the library cannot count on them from year to year. Property taxes, on the other hand, are stable and are making up a larger and larger portion of the district budget.

I want to pause and make sure this point is heard, because this has been missing from the coverage of the library facility debate so far: Thurston County, where more than half of the people in the district live and who pay for more than half of the budget, only receives 41 percent of the expenditures from the district. 

In fact, next year, Thurston County residents will spend $1.4 million outside of their own county on library services in Pacific, Grays Harbor and Lewis County.

From the Capital Facilities Proposal:

And, this isn't just because Thurston County has the largest population, the most stable economy and valuable property. It also gets to the nature of the communities in Thurston County. It is simply just cheaper to provide library services in urban areas.

This is an interesting set of stats from the proposal:

Daily Cost per borrowerCost per circ
Grays Harbor $38.97$9.72
Lewis $31.72$8.11
Mason $35.10$9.47
Pacific $35.50$9.08
Thurston $22.89$5.92

It costs almost half per borrower and per circulated item to provide library services in Thurston County than it does in Grays Harbor County. And it cost significantly less than in any other county. This is because on average the libraries are larger and more popular, meaning economies of scale can be created making it less expensive per head to deliver services. People also live closer together, meaning no matter where you live in Olympia, Tumwater and most of Lacey, the trip to the library isn't too far.

I understand we're part of big library district. I understand that services in rural areas are harder and more expensive to deliver. But, I also want folks advocating for their branches in incorporated areas of rural counties to recognize that if my county were not part of an inter-county rural library district, we would have $1.4 million more to spend on library services. Pointing out to us that the library district was founded to provide services in the rural areas does not change the fact that if we left, we could maintain more than four Hoquiam-sized libraries in Thurston County.

Timberland Regional Library has a hard choice to make in the next year if we wan to stay afloat. We can cut services across all libraries and make them less valuable across the board. We can close and consolidate library services. We can also raise taxes.

But before we make those decisions, everyone needs to take a clear look at how this whole thing is put together.


Anonymous said...

Don't be so simple. I thought you were better than that.Thurston county benefits enormously simply because the TRL service center is located there.To keep trotting out that exhausted old trope about poor Thurston is as shameful as everything else at the top of TRL lately. I agree with your introductory premise, it "reflects our current reality" because the liars are more emboldened, the top protects itself, and as the poet Audrey Lorde noted, "The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house." Why not ask staff and rural community members for a vote of confidence for the current administration? Or maybe you think we're too poor and stupid to deserve schools here? Lucky you. Count your blessings and consider whether you're worthy to treat even the least among us like that. For SHAME!

Anonymous said...

Noted that none of the eye-popping raises at HQ are examined here. For all those who havehsaid in the press that they could make so much more elsewhere, SNL said it first: Buh-Bye! It's called public service for a reason...

Anonymous said...

Cost per borrower/cost per circ? How much is it worth if a child gets the book that changes her *life*? Or a child who connects to a role model safe adult who is a positive lifelong influence? Remember about "hard" statistics cited in social sciences: "You can torture the data until it confesses anything you want."

Emmett said...

"Thurston county benefits enormously simply because the TRL service center is located there."

According to the TRL budget, we also pay for 54 percent of the service center, to the tune of more than $6 million.

That said, how exactly do we benefit from the service center being in Tumwater?

Thad Curtz said...

Hi, Emmett. Thanks for taking the trouble to ground this discussion in some numbers!

It sounds as if people in these places would still have had a way to get library books, but no library building. If that's right, I guess this comes down to two issues.

One is how important you think an actual building is, compared to being able to go to the catalog on a terminal, order books, and have them delivered to someplace local like an Amazon dropbox where you can pick them up. A building gives a community a place where people can have meetings and ask live librarians questions. Teachers can take kids on field trips there, and anybody can wander around looking at a lot of books and taking some home free if they feel like it. How much is that worth?

The other is where you draw the line around a community. I certainly don't agree with the people who say "I shouldn't have to pay property taxes for the schools because I don't have any kids in school; we ought to spend my taxes on things I care more about!" (That seems to me as if it's at least in the neighborhood of your fundamental argument here.) On the other hand, I am tempted sometimes by the thought that we should pass a law saying that each county gets a share of state spending that's strictly proportional to its contributions to state revenue, so that the politicians on the other side of the mountains who complain endlessly about how high Washington's taxes are could see how they like that...

Emmett said...

Hey Thad,

I don't disagree about the general concept of richer areas paying for poorer areas. Because, obviously, we can't have a situation where rich neighborhoods are getting more police coverage than poor ones. Though, I'd contend that a lot of places that people would consider poor (because they look urban) actually pay more property taxes than richer suburban neighborhoods, but that's another topic.

Anyway, it is important to keep in mind that Timberland has changed a lot since the 1960s, but the basic structure of the system hasn't. Thurston County used to be in the same neighborhood as the other counties, population wise. In the 1960s, Olympia was actually smaller than Aberdeen. But now, Thurston County is larger than the rest combined and growing while the others are not growing. I'm not sure where you'd exactly lay the line for when you'd need to restructure TRL, but I think we're over it now.

Emmett said...

I also think it's important to note that when given the chance, rural residents have not voted to support TRL.

During the 2009 levy lid lift for the library, only 48 percent of Randle residents (the library at the center of the current firestorm) voted to support their library. Olympia voted 64 percent in favor. We should give Randle some credit, only 29 percent of Lewis County as a whole voted in favor of raising their taxes for libraries.

But, knowing the disparity in spending and revenue, Olympia residents were essentially taxing themselves to spend money on rural libraries.

Steve S. said...

The most important question to me is this: What is the purpose of libraries in the 21st Century? For example, is the library primarily about getting access to books and other reading materials? Or has it essentially evolved into something akin to a community center with a focus on lifelong learning?

I'm more inclined toward the latter. We've become such a balkanized, anti-social society that the idea of closing a library strikes me as penny-wise and pound-foolish. This is particularly the case in a rural community that is otherwise lacking basic services.

That said, it also makes sense to argue that the library district will need to do a much better job of building partnerships if it is going to generate sufficient funding to maintain existing libraries. Here the district appears to suffer from a lack of imagination, e.g., considering the cost-effectiveness of co-locating libraries with other community services.

As a taxpayer in Thurston County, I don't mind subsidizing rural libraries to a certain degree. My sense is that district management was politically (and perhaps organizationally) tone deaf in how they put together the closure plan, but it did provide a valuable wake-up call to rural communities. These communities should arguably think much more deeply about how libraries fit into their community development strategies -- and build the local political will to help support them. It seems unfair and unrealistic to expect the district to do that on its own.

This may be one of those complicated policy issues where everyone is going to need to give a bit in order to really solve the problem -- and create a model that's more relevant for the 21st Century.

Emmett said...

"Here the district appears to suffer from a lack of imagination, e.g., considering the cost-effectiveness of co-locating libraries with other community services. "

Three times when I was on the board, TRL attempted to co-locate libraries inside schools with either small or nonexistent libraries. Twice we were strongly told no by either the city or the school district. The third time was Amanda Park, in which the county came forward with money to help the district bridge the facility issues. It isn't for lack of imagination that TRL hasn't been able to co-locate facilities, it has been local opposition to the idea.

Steve, I agree with the idea that libraries are at their best when they exist in the real world, like as a building that is open with people. That said, what do we say to the communities that aren't Randle or South Bend, that have never had library services? I keep on coming back to the situation TRL faced in Amanda Park. The board really did make the decision to leave the North Coast without services by standing pat in Amanda Park.

Unknown said...

Emmett helped get Heywood into that position. Once he found out the TRL board wasn’t a stepping stone to power, he split. You are right that the masters protect their own.

Emmett said...

Hi Carrie,

We've met a handful of times, mostly when I was involved with the Friends of the Olympia Library and you would fill in for Cheryl when she wasn't able to attend meetings. I was wondering where you got the impression that I was on the TRL board to use it as a "stepping stone to power?" If we had a chance to talk about it, I would have admitted to you that my time on the board taught me I wasn't particularly well suited to serve in that kind of capacity. I served my six year term and decided not to reapply because I learned that about myself.

Unknown said...

I do agree that Thurston County taxpayers are getting a raw deal. The TRL set up is faulty. Some of those rural counties probably wouldn’t even tax themselves for library service. The legislature made a mistake when it allowed a five county system. This is the sad facts of this situation. This does not excuse management of their devious and unprincipled behavior. Hard decisions can’t be made under current management.

Anonymous said...

Yep. And now we really a parallel of the national tome. If you're poor or uneducated or non-white screw you!

Anonymous said...

Duh Oh. All you just sucking the big fat titty of the state just don't get it, do you? Put service center in the Grays Harbor county and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

Are you f'ng JOKING Carrie? NO decisions can be made under the current Mismanagement. Cheryl tells lies upon lies, or worse, refuses to accept the responsibilities of her job by never putting ANYTHING in writing. And her unqualified sycophants do (or don't do) the same. The HR person was run out of Dodge at his last job, and it is clear why. He "works from home" (and you should SEE what he wears AT WORK!)

Anonymous said...

There is no "Fiscal Cliff" at TRL. Only gross mismanagement of taxpayers money.