Camas officials consider pros, cons of joining FVRL District

Topic will be discussed by City Council on Jan. 4

Local library history

Through the efforts of the Camas Women’s Club, the Camas Public Library opened more than 90 years ago in space located in the back of a local drug store. It moved to a city building at Northeast Third Avenue and Cedar Street in 1924. In 1939, voters approved a bond to build a new city hall and library complex at Northeast Fourth Avenue and Franklin Street. After a new City Hall building was constructed across the street in 1967, the library remained in the old building. In 2000, voters approved a $7.9 million bond to fund a library construction and renovation project. The facility opened to the public in 2003. Library operations are currently overseen by Interim Library Director Linda Swenton, the assistant director who stepped in following the retirement of David Zavortink in October.

The Fort Vancouver Regional Library District was established in 1950, and currently serves a population of 464,000 with an annual operating budget of $22.76 million and 219 employees. It includes libraries in Clark County in Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield, Vancouver, Woodland, Yacolt and Washougal. Also part of the district are libraries in Klickitat County (Bingen, White Salmon and Goldendale) and Skamania County (Stevenson and North Bonneville). Amelia Shelley was hired in September to serve as the FVRL’s new executive director.

The Washougal Community Library was originally established by the Washougal Women’s Club in 1924. It contracted with what was then known as the Clark County Library in 1946, and annexed to the FVRL District in 1981. Rachael Ries, a reference librarian at the Vancouver Community Library, will start her new role as the Washougal site’s branch manager on Dec. 16. She succeeds the retired Christine Hughey.

The Camas Public Library is currently the only independently operated library in Clark County, but city officials are exploring whether that should change.

According to City Administrator Pete Capell, the decision to consider having Camas join the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District came about following the retirement in October of Library Director David Zavortink, who had been at the helm for two decades.

“If you look at the region and you look at Clark County, we are the only city that is not in the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District,” he said. “So, before we fill a position at that level we need to explore our options, not automatically do things the way we always have.”

After Zavortink’s departure, efforts to find his successor were put on hold. Camas Assistant Director Linda Swenton, a former Vancouver Community Library employee, stepped in as interim library director.

At this point, Capell said, officials have kept exploration of the issue limited to what he describes as “high level.”

“We haven’t dug really deep into the details,” he explained. “If the FVRL or the city said, ‘This isn’t right for us,’ I don’t want to waste their time or our time looking at a lot of the minuscule details about ownership of the building, lease payments, the specific structure, and what would happen to the existing employees.”

The City Council will discuss the pros and cons of joining the FVRL District during its 4:30 p.m. workshop on Monday, Jan. 4. It will also consider input from the Camas Library Board of Trustees.

Capell said he anticipates the elected leaders will provide direction, one way or another. City staff will be instructed to either research the concept further and provide detailed information about what annexation into the FVRL district would look like, or stop the investigative process all-together and begin the work involved in recruiting a new library director.

If the former option is chosen, the City Council could decide to send the issue to a ballot. The ultimate decision to join the FVRL taxing district would be made by voters.

Pros and cons

Sometimes referred to as the “Jewel of Camas” or “The City’s Living Room,” a Camas library was established in 1923. It is currently located downtown in a 30,000 square foot Georgian Colonial Revival style building that was remodeled and expanded using money from a $7.9 million bond approved in a 2000.

The library has 14.3 full-time equivalent employees, and 2015-16 budget of $2.78 million.

Capell describes the potential financial impact to taxpayers of joining the FVRL district as “neutral.”

Because Camas operates its own municipal library, it is allowed by law to increase its tax rate by up to 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The funding, which hasn’t quite reached that ceiling, is used to operate the library and fund support services provided to the library by other city departments. In comparison, FVRL charges its ratepayers 47 cents per $1,000.

“For taxpayers, it would be neutral,” he said. “It wouldn’t cost them more; it wouldn’t cost them less.”

According to Capell, among the benefits to joining FVRL would be access to the library system’s larger collection. Camas library cardholders can tap into some of those books and materials through a shared services agreement. The city does not currently pay a fee for this service, but FVRL is looking into changing that.

One of the more glaring drawbacks may be that if Camas joins FVRL, the city’s power over its library would dissipate.

“Their branch libraries do have some local control and local flavor but it is still ultimately run by the FVRL board and their administration, so we lose our local control,” Capell said. “I would hope that most of the programming that people enjoy at the Camas library would continue, but the city has no say in that. It could continue, and it could change in a direction that we wouldn’t like. I don’t think it would, but there is always a risk.”

Another negative, some library employees could find themselves experiencing “a significant reduction in pay,” due to a change in job classification that would come with being part of the FVRL.

Capell added that he has told the library’s employees, who are currently part of the Office & Professional Employees International Union, Local 11/AFL-CIO, that if Camas does join the FVRL District “part of the agreement is they would make ever effort to retain all of our people, whether here or in the system.”

Capell said considering the option of annexing the Camas library’s services into the FVRL District is one method of making sure this city function is operating efficiently and effectively. Similar explorations have been conducted in other departments when directors or managers have retired or otherwise left employment with the city.

“I think it’s prudent that we do the due diligence when we are at a point where we have a key individual that has left the organization, as to what our options are for moving forward,” Capell said. “I wouldn’t want people to get alarmed, because it’s the prudent thing to do. If they have an opinion about it one way or another though, I would encourage them to comment on it.”