Every few months, someone posts some variation of the following questions on Facebook: “Why can’t we use the library in UP? Why does Fircrest reimburse the cost of a Tacoma library card, but not a Pierce County library card?”
My wife and I are professional writers. We both grew up going to local libraries in our hometowns. This is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about it. Here’s a primer that should help explain why things are the way they are in Fircrest:
The Pierce County Library System is an independent government agency known as a junior taxing district (in other words, despite the name, it’s not part of county government). It was created to serve unincorporated Pierce County, and over time has expanded into 15 cities and towns. The district, which now manages 20 libraries, is funded by its own property tax. This is a key point: A majority of voters in each of those cities and towns decided to join the library district, which means they each pay 50 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value for library services. That equates to $150 a year on a $300,000 home, for example.
The system has reciprocity agreements with other municipal library systems, such as Tacoma Public Library. That’s why Pierce County Library cardholders can check out items from Tacoma, and vice versa.
Tacoma’s system is set up differently. It’s part of city government, not a separate governing agency. That mean it is funded through the city’s General Fund, not a special property tax assessment. That means the Tacoma Public Library system competes for every dollar along with the city’s other general needs, such as police and fire.
Now that we understand the difference between the two systems, let’s look at Fircrest’s involvement.
For years, the City of Fircrest has reimbursed its residents for the $56 cost of a Tacoma card. About 200 of our 6,600 residents take advantage of that offer each year.
Some Fircrest residents have expressed frustration to me that Pierce County Libraries won’t let individuals purchase a card like they can with Tacoma. I understand that frustration, but I also understand the county system’s reasoning. Allowing individuals in Fircrest to purchase a card isn’t fair to the 580,000 residents in the county system’s service area that pay a property tax to fund the system. From the system’s perspective, more than a dozen communities are all in. Pierce County Library System’s Board of Trustees doesn’t want to undermine its own funders by letting one community buy individual cards.
So why hasn’t the Fircrest City Council put this before voters? Here are two reasons based on my observations after 5+ years on the council:
- Some city leaders have expressed concern that joining the library district would take us closer to the maximum property tax limit. State law caps the amount of property tax that a city can collect at $3.37 per thousand dollars of valuation. The city’s current mill rate is $2.33, plus the 50-cent EMS rate for fire services, which puts Fircrest’s total rate at $2.83. The city is well below the state cap, which is a nice safety net in the event of some catastrophe or just overall growth over the years. Adding the 50-cent library tax would take the city’s rate to $2.33 – just 4 cents below the cap.
- No one has asked. I’ve seen some well meaning comments/complaints on Facebook over the past few years, but that’s not going to prompt elected officials to put a tax increase on the ballot. No one has come to the City Council to talk about this during my time on the Council.
Two state legislators who represent Fircrest in Olympia – Democratic Rep. Christine Kilduff and Republican Rep. Dick Muri – co-sponsored a bill in 2016 that would have directed the state Department of Commerce to study library access in Washington State and how to expand it. The bill didn’t pass, but it was a noble effort. Here is what her bill said in the opening section about the intent:
“Public libraries play a unique role in American society as centers for learning and human interaction. Libraries help to educate people, support democracy by providing people with the tools to become informed citizens, and provide safe and welcoming places where people can explore and discuss ideas.”
The study would have identified jurisdictions that do not provide free library membership to its citizens, determined the cost of expanding membership to all residents or just all youth, and identified any private, philanthropic or government grant programs that could support expanding library access. Reps. Kilduff and Muri might be willing to try again, but it would help if they can demonstrate community interest by hearing from folks.
In the meantime, just because you can’t check something out doesn’t mean you can’t use that great library in UP. My son is a voracious reader, and we’ve been known to hang out for a couple of hours and just read. They also have great educational events.
I wrote this to explain the current status because I get asked about it every so often. I hope you find it helpful. If I missed anything, feel free to post questions in the comments and I will try to get answers.