Council weighs in on Library

Staff and council members talk about intricacies of library issues.

Editors Note: In the past few issues of the Reporter, there have been stories and letters and a forum regarding the possible de-annexation from the King County Library System. In order to get a sense of what the City’s role will be, and how it proceeds in deciding whether or not to vote to leave the County system, we asked Council members and staff what they thought about the issue.

The Reporter spoke with Council members Debbie Bertlin, Jane Brahm, Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz and Assistant City Manager, Kirsten Taylor. The content of these interviews has been edited for length and clarity. For a fuller version of the interview, and to see stories and letters regarding the library by other voices, including members of the Concerned Citizens Committee, visit

What has been the city’s relationship with KCLS?

Jane Brahm: Since the very beginning, when we had just a tiny, little library, we’ve contracted with KCLS. The relationship with KCLS has been very long, since KCLS started really.

Have there been similar flashpoints in Island history?

Brahm: Oh yes, a lot of things. The first annexation was a big deal too. The decision to have our own marine patrol and to pull away from King County [was a big deal]. Issues get well vetted on Mercer Island and there’s no lack of passion. That’s a wonderful thing, but one needs to try to get a sense of the whole Island and the long-term and not just the needs of today.

Why do you think this issue has generated such a heated dialogue?

I think it’s this sense of possession: ‘It’s our library, we love it.’ It’s sort of like sending your firstborn off to school or something.

What would be the function and authority of the library board created by council back in July?

Kirsten Taylor: KCLS has to consult with the board on all aspects of operation and management. But it’s very clear they only have to consult. The board doesn’t get any authority to make a decision but that in and of itself forces KCLS to at least consider community input and I think a lot of what we’ve gotten to now could have been avoided if that board had been in place two years ago and there had been a process, going through this renovation with the board.

How long will the board be in effect for?

Taylor: I had originally proposed in my agenda bill, that the library board last a period of about 18 months so that it would last about the lifetime of the renovations of the library and the council opted to extend it by one year. [At the end of that] 2.5 years we’ll decide whether it’s active and useful work for the board to continue at that time.

What does the timeline for construction look like?

Dan Grausz: Probably not before December. They haven’t even started the bidding process yet. They can’t until they have the permits.

What has been the biggest misunderstanding or detail lost in this lengthy conversation?

Grausz: One of the misunderstandings is the role of the city. When the voters decided 20 years ago to annex to KCLS they basically turned over the library to another governmental agency. The city literally has no power over this renovation except [to] review the permit to make sure the permit information complies with the code…People come to our meetings and they are very agitated and they want us to do something and it’s frustrating because we’re limited in what we can do.

What have been your recent conversations with KCLS?

Grausz: We met with them on Tuesday, August 5. The first [library] board meeting is the 14. We met with them just to prepare for the first meeting and to gauge whether they’re willing to consult with the board regarding this renovation. And on some points they’re willing to engage in further conversation. But I don’t want anyone to believe that they’re going to tear up the plans and start all over again. They’re not going to do that. The vast majority of what’s in those plans is what’s going to end up in the remodel. But it needs to be kept in mind that a lot of what’s in those plans are changes that they made after the city and the Concerned Citizens and the Mercer Island Library Board started pushing on this.

For the first time [on August 5, KCLS] said they were willing to talk about the book-drop again. That was the first time in a long time.

I have all the respect in the world for what the Concerned Citizens Committee did. Unfortunately…the way KCLS has handled this has made them so frustrated that the original goal of trying to get a good renovation has gotten lost. The reality is that Mercer Island has to have its own library and to try to replicate at all what KCLS has done, it’s never going to happen. We can’t match their 4 million book collection…So we would have to affiliate with somebody and there are not a lot of options out there.

Where did the idea for de-annexation come from and how is the city approaching it?

Grausz: There’s a specific provision in state law that says how you do that and basically City Council would have to put it on the ballot and it has nothing to do with this 100-signature petition to form a new library.

This is where it gets confusing. If you look at state law there are several ways that a library can come into being. One way, is that Mercer Island could form its own library and the way that’s done is 100 taxpayers, or the City Council could put a referendum on the ballot and if the voters approve a library we can go and create a library.

What would de-annexing entail?

Grausz: KCLS is actually a rural library district…a rural library district is limited to one county…and then the governmental entities within the county can annex to the rural library district. That’s what the voters of Mercer Island decided to do in 1992-93. The law says if you want to unravel that you need to have a vote. The City Council would have to put that on the ballot. there’s no provision there that says if 100 or even 1,000 citizens [sign a petition] it goes on the ballot. There’s another provision on state law on initiatives so that presumably would require 1,000 signatures to force the council to put something on the ballot. But this provision, that the Concerned Citizens have gone under, is to form a new library. And the question that our city attorney is grappling with, is can you legally form a new library when you’re already part of a library. That’s the conundrum we’re in.

At some point you can’t have two libraries operating at the same time. Taxpayers are never going to pay for that anyway. They have the building and the only way we can get the building back is to de-annex…Then we’d have to buy the building back at appraised value and we’d have to pay off our share of the 2004 bond issue — between $500,000 and $600,000 a year — for the next ten years.

It would be very expensive to leave and we have no idea right now what it would cost to operate our own library. We have no idea what we could deliver with our own library. I think generally people are satisfied with the service they get from KCLS. They get frustrated by them but they’re satisfied with the services and to suggest for a second that the city is prepared to offer equivalent services, we haven’t even begun to think about what that would mean.

How should the city approach this push for de-annexation?

Brahm: It’s a legal question. Apparently it’s quite unprecedented to de-annex and create a library when you already have a library. [City attorney] Katie Knight is dealing with the legal questions about what can be done right now. [Some people] are questioning or seeing that as foot dragging on the part of the city. I think we need to do this right because any election we have costs a lot of money — at least $40,000 for an election and up to $80,000 for a special election.

So I believe we need to cross all our T’s and dot all of our I’s.’ It would be irresponsible for us to fail to do that.

How much do Islanders contribute in property taxes to the KCLS system?

Debbie Bertlin: KCLS collects its own property tax based on assessed values.  Accordingly, Mercer Island contributes approximately $4.4 million to KCLS on an annual basis for the maintenance and operations of the facility, and access to the full 3+ million item collection.

In addition to that $4.4 million, approximately $565,000 per year goes to servicing the debt associated with the bond which passed in 2004.  The bond is being paid off over a period of 20 years, of which 10 years have passed. Irrespective of whether or not the Island were to withdraw from the KCLS system, we are obligated to continue these debt payments which, based on current property assessments, would total in excess of $5 million.  There appears to be no way around this.

Do you have concerns about disruption of service when construction begins on the remodel?

Brahm: We’ve had this disruption of service when the library was remodeled completely. The interesting thing was the library was relocated to where True Value is now. It was in the building to the North. They had a big space and the library usership went up because it was right downtown. The whole community got involved in moving boxes and setting up boxes and helping the library move. Yes, it was disruptive but it worked out very well because it got people using the library who wouldn’t otherwise.

The above interviews were conducted separately. They have been edited together for the sake of cohesion.