Today the Seattle City Council Libraries, Education, and Neighborhoods Committee spoke about The Seattle Public Library’s 1,500 hours of rolling closures for the first time since the Library announced the service cuts two weeks ago. Committee Chair Maritza Rivera, who never responded to my request for comment about the closures when the news broke, must have spent the last 14 days thinking of ways to downplay the apparent connection between Mayor Bruce Harrell’s hiring freeze and the higher-than-usual vacancy rate that SPL said forced the hour reductions. 

While Council Member Tammy Morales, the only member to dare stand up for the libraries so far, advocated for taxes on the wealthy and on corporations to save critical services in the face of budget disaster, Rivera started digging through the couch cushions. She suggested SPL wouldn’t be in this situation if it weren’t for the union's contract, crime, and these damn kids and their screens. 

Typically, SPL operates at a 4% vacancy rate, which amounts to about 25 to 30 positions out of the department’s authorized 705. However, as of April 10, SPL had twice that number—67 vacant positions–which works out to a vacancy rate of 9.6%, according to SPL spokesperson Laura Gentry. 

According to Chief Librarian Tom Fay’s remarks in the committee meeting, the Mayor’s hiring freeze (which excludes cops, fire fighters, and the new dual dispatch program) contributed to the vacancy issue. SPL technically does not have to adhere to the freeze since they are not housed under the Mayor’s Office, but he writes the budget, so SPL seems to think it’s best to cooperate.

Harrell and Fay agreed that during the eight weeks of closures, SPL could hire 12 more staffers; probably two managers and 10 temporary librarians, Gentry told The Stranger last month. Gentry wouldn’t promise that those 12 people would be enough to reopen the libraries fully.

Though both Harrell and Fay clearly agree that SPL needed a reprieve from the hiring freeze, at today’s committee meeting Rivera tried to suggest otherwise. “‘Hiring freeze’ is a bit of a buzzword, and I don't want people leaving here thinking that it's all the issues are the hiring freeze,” she said. She later added, “We really need to give the full picture and the full information so folks really understand where this reduction of hours is coming from.”

Rivera shifted focus away from the hiring freeze, arguing that SPL could attribute its staffing shortage to the benefits that librarians won in their contract. Giving workers a cost-of-living increase, Rivera said, “impacts” the Library’s ability to hire people because their funds do not go as far. She also said that giving workers more paid family leave contributes to staffing shortages. Earlier in the presentation, Fay said that SPL saw more workers out on leave, but that contributes to “soft” vacancies, not to the actual job openings. 

Rivera also argued that if the Library spent less money on e-books, then it would have more money to hire staff and to keep doors open. According to Fay’s slideshow, SPL added more than 113,000 copies of e-books and audiobooks to its digital collection last year. And the people love it. More than 174,000 patrons borrowed more than 5.4 million copies of e-books and audiobooks. But all that borrowing wasn't cheap. E-books can cost three to five times more than their print equivalents, which limits SPL’s “buying power as demand shifts to online materials,” the slideshow read.

Fay said that e-books cost more because e-book publishers see libraries as competition, so they limit a library's use of their materials or slap hefty fees for sharing. Conversely, libraries can just buy printed books off the shelf like a regular consumer and share them with the public. Fay said the State Legislature would have to tackle that issue, not the City Council. 

Rivera, again distracting from the hiring freeze, suggested crime may be the source of the Library’s issues. If people commit crime or just look kinda dirty in a library, that means facilities will need more staff to deal with problems. “Libraries were not built to provide human services for folks,” she said. But instead of discussing ways to bolster social services to offload that work, Rivera said she was “just recognizing” that the City puts SPL workers through a lot. 

Later in the meeting, Rivera asked if Fay had noticed fewer people coming to the library because of crime, an accusation that the right-wing uses to demonize the vital public service that they probably never use. Fay said no. According to his presentation, SPL saw a record high number of patrons last year. All told, they checked out more than 2.8 million physical and digital materials, used the computers for more than 340,000 sessions, and attended 3,500 programs. 

In general, he seemed to think staff had a good handle on crime or negative social behavior in the library. Usually they can de-escalate a situation, and occasionally they have to kick someone out for a day. “People have bad days,” Fay said. “You’re wet. You’re cold. You're probably going to start the day in the wrong place.”

It looks like Morales is still the only council member who is serious about keeping the libraries open. On the day SPL announced the closures, she issued a statement while her colleagues kept quiet. In her statement, she encouraged her colleagues—most of whom ran on anti-tax, corporate platforms—to join her in finding new streams of progressive revenue to fill the $240 million budget deficit that threatens social services such as the Library.  

But Rivera pointed to what the conservatives may call “inefficiencies”—wages, benefits, accessible materials, and care for unhoused Seattleites–as the places to look for pennies. As for the other committee members, Council Members Tanya Woo, Joy Hollingsworth, and Cathy Moore did not reveal much, if anything, about what they think the council should do to help the library. 

Woo asked Fay what SPL needs from the City Council. He said, “This is not combative. We have a serious issue in the City with the budget. There's going to be things that we have to do that are going to be hard… But I know that as a group, we will be able to work this out.”