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We're long overdue for a county library system

If there is fault to be had and people to be held accountable for the state auditor’s staff finding shortcomings in the oversight of the La Conner Rural Partial County Library District – for that is what the library’s official name is – that fault lies with all the Skagit ­County commissioners for the years and decades of a lack of vision and leadership that has allowed all residents countywide to languish with antiquated, piecemeal and completely underfunded and understaffed independent municipal and partial county library districts.

It is not the director and her board in La Conner that needs to bear the brunt of any criticism for slips in management. It is all the organized and independent entities and organizations that have chosen to not bring Skagit County into even the 20th century by their refusal to advocate and insist on a single Skagit County library district that would provide a uniform and comprehensive system to service every resident from Conway to Alger and from Marblemount to the Deception Pass bridge.

Like so many civic issues – the ways we govern ourselves – libraries are proscribed in state law. Since our county commissioners have not done so “of its own initiative,” then when 100 Skagit County residents petition for a library district, an election will decide the issue (RCW 27.12.030). That is one option.

The lack of a single system creates a financial penalty for the county’s municipalities and library districts, forcing local taxes for the support of individual libraries.

The benefits of a centralized system are many. It will offer universal services to all residents. Duplications will disappear, while the savings will be redirected to expand services in the smaller communities. Staff ought to not be cut but employed additional hours and supplemented. Every branch will need a managing librarian if not a director. Staff hours and positions can be expanded, tapping the larger county tax base. Municipal residents and library departments will have tax and programmatic relief.

Critically, all Skagitonians will be eligible for a free library card. Now, live outside municipal boundaries and it can be $100 for a library card. The complicated guest privileges between library districts will disappear.

The most critical issue small rural districts face: having a certified librarian as director – is solved with the tax base a countywide system provides. That is why the phrase “comprehensive library system” exists.

Our county commissioners know the solution to the struggles of the municipal and partial library districts. Now, in this election year, is the time for them to move beyond lip-service support and actively advocate for a countywide system. Four candidates are running for two commissioner positions. Voters will be helped to hear their pledge of commitment for bringing the issue before them as a legislative body and approving it.

Of course, the current commissioners can put the proposal on the agenda any week for discussion and scheduling a vote. If the commissioners need to deliberate, they can commission a study. They can start with that small investment, allocating initial resources of time and money. The main resource needed is leadership – and will.

After all, a countywide system will bring Skagit County into the 20th century. It is never too late to embrace progress.

What’s the value of every child in the county and her parents having free library cards? Priceless.


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