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Activists Target Wash. Libraries

August 28, 2002

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LOON LAKE, Wash. (AP) _ In the mountains and remote valleys of northeast Stevens County, anti-tax crusaders are trying to close the book on rural libraries.

Seven small libraries that bring books, tapes and the Internet to small communities like Onion Creek and Northport have been targeted by activists who contend they are too expensive and unneeded.

The opponents include Dave Sitler, a real estate agent and property tax foe, who argues it’s a case of circulation without representation.

``It’s not a matter of libraries. It’s a matter of taxes,″ said Sitler, who claims an appointed board spends more than $1 million in tax money each year ``with no recourse for unelecting them.″

A proposed ballot initiative _ which has not yet qualified for the Nov. 5 ballot _ would close seven of nine county-run libraries. It may be the first effort in the country to abolish a library system by popular vote, according to the American Library Association.

Some residents worry that the Dewey decimal dustup will make locals look like redneck illiterates.

``There is no way to put a positive spin on this,″ said Regan Robinson, who helped get the rural library system off the ground. ``This is a great community, but this is not a good aspect of it.″

Three-hundred miles from the high-tech, high-paying jobs of the Seattle area, Stevens County’s 40,000 residents include loggers, farmers and backwoods survivalists who make do with a median household income of $33,387 a year. A magnesium plant that was the county’s largest private employer closed last year.

The libraries under threat are housed in a liquor store, a grange hall, a general store and other buildings scattered among the county’s 2,400 square miles.

``There are other ways to get books rather than libraries,″ Sitler said. ``Some people actually buy them.″

Still, the closest Barnes & Noble is in Spokane, some 40 miles to the south.

According to the 2000 census, one-third of the people burned wood as their primary source of heat. It is not uncommon to find families living off the electricity grid.

Jon Vensel, 19, of Loon Lake, comes to the library every couple of days to read and answer his e-mail.

``I’d vote to keep it,″ said Vensel, who paid $52 a year to use public libraries in adjacent Spokane County before the library here opened in 1998.

The Stevens County Rural Library District was approved by voters in 1996. They agreed to raise property taxes by up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation _ about $38 a year for the average household _ to pay for them.

But opponents of the library tax are unmoved.

``All of us read and believe in libraries, but there has to be a different way ... to support libraries,″ said Karen Frostad, a local school cook.

Library expenses, especially the $500,000 payroll for 10 employees, are too high, opponents believe.

Library abolishers had little trouble collecting nearly 3,000 signatures, far more than needed to qualify for the November ballot, Frostad said. Those signatures must be validated before the measure can go before voters.

``The people we had collecting signatures ran into very few people who said they wanted libraries,″ Frostad said. ``It was just the opposite.″

Nationally, library use and construction are both rising, said Mitch Freedman, president of the Chicago-based American Library Association.

``What is sad is that in times of economic recession, library use goes up dramatically,″ Freedman said.

Freedman acknowledged that many library systems are suffering from budget woes. Seattle closed its city libraries Monday for a week and will close them again for a week in December to save $1.8 million.

Supporters of the Stevens County libraries note that its rural libraries are on pace to circulate nearly 300,000 books this year, and add 220 new users a month. If the initiative succeeds, the libraries will have to return $40,000 worth of donated computers and software.

Robinson said the original measure passed with 62 percent of the vote and is optimistic her side will win. She even offered a line from author Michael Moore.

``Don’t mess with a librarian,″ she quoted.


On the Net:

Public Library Association: http://www.pla.org

Stevens County Library District: http://www.scrld.org

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