Books - john yaya - flickrAfter Julie Price lost her job as a receptionist for an event planning company, the Ballard library became her personal office and lifeline to the working world.

With no computer at home, she uses her precious 90 minutes at the public terminals each day to search help-wanted ads, check email and print resumes. Soon, she may be joined by a friend who just got laid off from the food bank.

In a book-loving city like Seattle, libraries offer services as varied as their celebrated architecture: pajama storytimes, endless reading possibilities, free video rentals, quiet workspace, and Internet access for those seeking everything from work to information about medical conditions.

When the Seattle libraries closed for a week this fall to help close a $43 million gap in the city’s budget, it was a hardship for Price. The whippet-thin 56-year-old, who lives close enough to the bone that she gave up her apartment and moved in with her mother, rented a laptop for the week.

“I was lucky that it didn’t affect my job search,” she said. “Still, that’s $50 out of my pocket, and I didn’t have $50 to blow.”

Across Washington state, local governments and public agencies this year have downsized budgets for dire economic times. As we outlined in an earlier post on cuts to services that affect children, Initiative 1033 on the ballot this November would essentially freeze government spending at these recessionary levels, providing only for increases pegged to population growth and inflation. The baseline for all future spending would be a year in which governments haven’t been able to provide basic services for citizens.

From Camas (pdf link) to Clark to Skagit counties, for instance, road funds have been cut or shifted to pay for sheriff’s patrols and other essentials.

There are fewer lifeguards at Kirkland public beaches and fewer police officers in Lake Forest Park. According to a recent survey from the Association of Washington Cities, 46 percent of cities that re-opened their budgets reduced spending on public safety.

And the state budget passed in 2009 required equally tough choices.  Just take a look at this graphic representation of all of the budget cuts the Washington legislature enacted to deal with collapsing tax revenues…

Washington State Budget

An interactive version of this bubble chart by Andrew Zahler showing state spending cuts by area can be found here. I can’t vouch for the underlying data, but it helps put things in perspective.

In just one example, lawmakers shifted $100 million that would normally be used to clean up drug labs and sites polluted with toxic chemicals in order to pay for other programs. The Department of Ecology estimates only one cleanup project will be started over the next two years, compared to 14 during the last budget cycle.

A small grant program that educates and engages people in neighborhood cleanups lost $2 million. It’s helped community groups monitor water quality, reduce pesticide use, ensure automobile recyclers follow regulations and recycle “hard to handle” products like unwanted medicine.

In Spokane, a program using native speakers to educate immigrants fishing for food in the Spokane River about health risks from PCBs and other chemicals will lose roughly 1/3 of its funding. For the last five years, it’s also distributed information and maps of the most polluted areas to homeless populations.

“They’re fishing and living and spending a lot of time on the beaches in some places that are pretty contaminated with heavy metals from mining in Idaho,” said Kat Hall, a program director for The Lands Council. “We’re definitely going to have to make some kind of cuts to the program, and that’s what we’re trying to figure out now.”

Elsewhere in eastern Washington, the Chelan-Douglas Health District helped balance its budget (pdf link) by closing offices to the public on Fridays.

It also stopped offering home visits to new mothers and babies, cut in-house immunizations and reduced oral health services. After downsizing from 60 to 43 employees, there wasn’t enough time to see the public five days a week and keep up with paperwork.

“People lost access because we lost employees,” said spokeswoman Mary Small.

In Walla Walla, Freda Tepfer is worried about losing another kind of access. The student who works multiple part-time jobs relies on local bus service for transportation.

Valley Transit, which operates the bus system, lost more than half its funding after voters approved Initiative 695, which replaced the state’s motor vehicle excise tax with a $30 license fee. This fall, the agency proposed cutting its service hours by about 30 percent, which would mean fewer buses, longer wait times and a dramatic drop in ridership.

Now, a local group has launched a campaign to raise the local sales tax by 0.3 percent to preserve the area’s bus service, a revenue-raising strategy that would likely become far more common if I-1033 passes.

In this case, advocates argue, maintaining bus service is essential not only for those who depend on it, but for fostering an active and diverse citizenry. It’s unclear whether voters will agree.

“People’s physical and mental health depends on being engaged in the community,” said Tepfer, who’s more apt to stay home if there’s no bus or it’s too cold to bike. “Sometimes the extra effort can be chilling.”

Books photo courtesy of Flickr user John Yaya under the Creative Commons license.