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Washington Public Library Trustee Wiki

Washington libraries are funded in a number of ways. They may levy a property tax, contract for services, or submit a budget to municipal authorities. Each requires that the board of trustees knows in detail the unique processes, schedules, and the relationships with local authorities that will affect their own library.

Property Taxes

Property taxes are the chief source of revenue for library districts in Washington, but the laws governing them are extremely complex. As expressed by MRSC in the opening line of both of their revenue guides, “One longtime legislative analyst from Olympia says that the Washington property tax is the most complicated in the nation. We plan to limit this discussion to what officials and staff… really need to know. Even that is pretty complicated.”

Check out the MRSC revenue guides where you will find clear explanations of property taxes, levy lids, and related topics:

The MRSC also provides a summary of “Property Taxed Based Revenue Sources” on its web page devoted to Revenues of Special Purpose Districts. In describing taxing districts, it states:

“Taxing districts are defined in RCW 84.04.120. They have the power to impose tax burdens upon district property in proportion to property value, as opposed to obtaining revenue for public purposes in proportion to the benefits accruing to it. The statutes classify taxing districts into senior taxing districts (the state, the county, city or town, county road, port, and public utility districts) and junior taxing districts (all others).”

A wealth of information on property tax levies may be found in the Property Tax Levies Operations Manual (also known as the Property Tax Levy Manual) from Washington’s Department of Revenue. A link to this document has been provided by MRSC on their web page, Revenues of Special Purpose Districts.

An in-depth look at Special Purpose Districts may be found in MRSC’s online publication, Special Purpose Districts in Washington State.

The Washington State Department of Revenue is another rich resource, offering workshops, publications, and information related to taxes in Washington State. Get help on their “Doing business” page. Need to find a county assessor or treasurer? The Department of Revenue makes it easy - just go to their “County Assessor and Treasurer Websites” page.

Levy Lid Lifts and Excess Levies

What is the difference? In response to a question regarding excess levies and levy lid lifts, a legal consultant from MRSC provided the following extremely clear explanation of what can be a very confusing topic:

“The difference is that [City A] is doing a LEVY LID LIFT under RCW 84.55.050 and you have been doing an Excess Levy under RCW 84.52.052. Now, the question is, can you do a levy lid lift? And, the answer is, “yes” but in doing so, you would be “borrowing” levy capacity from your fire district, which they could take back at any time by having a vote to do a levy lid lift themselves. In fact, even right now, without your doing a levy lid lift, you are borrowing capacity from the fire department and could lose it. So, let’s make certain you understand your current situation first before I discuss a levy lid lift.

Your Current Situation: Get out your copy of A Revenue Guide for Washington Cities and Towns and look at page 1. You are in a fire district. So your maximum guaranteed levy rate is $2.10 ($3.60 less the maximum possible fire district levy of $1.50). For 2012, your levy rate is $2.698378 according page 13 of your assessor’s report. [The “County Assessor and Treasurer Websites” page provides contact information for county assessors.] And, that of Fire District No. 6 is $0.402768. Added together they equal $3.101146. This is less than $3.60, so everything is “fine.” But, what if your fire district decided that for 2013, it wanted to levy $1.00 and went to the voters with a lid lift under RCW 84.55.050 and was successful? Your levy rate would fall to $2.60 because the two rates together cannot equal more than $3.60. If the fire district had a vote on a levy rate of, say, $1.30, and was successful, then your levy rate would have to fall to $2.30, which is less than your current rate.

Now, it is probably unlikely that the fire district would try to jump from a levy rate of approximately 40 cents to a dollar or more all at once. But, you need to be aware that when your regular property tax rate is anything over $2.60, you are “borrowing” some of your from the fire department’s rate. Think about how you would handle your budget if all of a sudden the fire district raised its rate a lot!

Note that an excess levy such as you now have for your library is outside all these limits. It is outside your maximum guaranteed regular levy rate of $2.60 and the maximum rate for you and the fire district together of $3.60.

Could you do a levy lid lift like [City A]? [City A] has a maximum tax rate limit of $3.60 and it is lower than that now. It doesn’t have to worry about what a fire district does because it is not part of a fire district. It is not “borrowing” any part of its levy rate. So, in that sense, you cannot be like [City A]. However, you can do a levy lid lift as long as you realize that at least some of the levy lift would “go away” if the fire district did one also. Let’s say, for example, that you put a lid lift on the ballot for 50 cents, which is what your excess levy has been. So, assuming your rate is still $2.698378 (it would probably be a little different, but we don’t know what it would be), with a lift of 50 cents, your total would increase to $3.198378. Assume the fire district stays at $0.402768. The two rates added together come to $3.601146, which is more than the allowed $3.60. Your levy lift would have to be a little less than 50 cents.

You could do one and you could put it on the ballot for as many years as you want. But, remember that part or all of the lid lift money could go away if the fire department wanted to raise its rate. You might say, “Well that’s better than having to go out for a vote every year! And it only requires a simple majority vote. If the fire department raises its rate, then we could go back to doing an excess levy.” That’s a good argument. Just realize that every penny the fire department raises its rate would lower your lid lift by a penny. You would not be getting the 50 cents you are currently getting from the excess levy.

So, that is where you are. Since you already have passed an excess levy this past February for collection in 2013, you have a year to think about a lid lift. There is information about a lift on pages 10 and 11 of the city revenue guide referred to above. Also see our web page, Levy Lid Lift.

Other Revenue Sources


A city may choose to allocate additional funds for special library projects. When large capital projects are planned, the city, with the library’s support, may ask voters to approve a special bond issue. Capital projects can include:

  • A new library building;
  • Extensive remodeling of an old library;
  • Technological improvements to an existing library building.

“A rural county library district, A rural county library district, intercounty rural library district, or island library district may contract indebtedness and issue general obligation bonds not to exceed an amount, together with any outstanding nonvoter approved general obligation indebtedness, equal to one-tenth of one percent of the value of the taxable property within the district, as the term "value of the taxable property" is defined in RCW 39.36.015. The maximum term of nonvoter approved general obligation bonds shall not exceed six years. A rural county library district, island library district, or intercounty rural library district may additionally contract indebtedness and issue general obligation bonds for capital purposes only, together with any outstanding general indebtedness, not to exceed an amount equal to one-half of one percent of the value of the taxable property within the district, as the term "value of the taxable property" is defined in RCW 39.36.015 whenever a proposition authorizing the issuance of such bonds has been approved by the voters of the district pursuant to RCW 39.36.050, by three-fifths of the persons voting on the proposition at which election the number of persons voting on the proposition shall constitute not less than forty percent of the total number of votes cast in such taxing district at the last preceding general election. If the voters shall so authorize at an election held pursuant to RCW 39.36.050, the district may levy annual taxes in excess of normal legal limitations to pay the principal and interest upon such bonds as they shall become due. The excess levies mentioned in this section or in RCW 84.52.052 or RCW 84.52.056 may be made notwithstanding anything contained in RCW 27.12.050 or RCW 27.12.150 or any other statute pertaining to such library districts. RCW 27.12.222

See also Library Capital Facility Areas.

Contract Fees

Libraries may realize some revenues through contracting fees. “Instead of establishing or maintaining an independent library, the legislative body of any governmental unit authorized to maintain a library shall have power to contract to receive library service from an existing library, the board of trustees of which shall have reciprocal power to contract to render the service with the consent of the legislative body of its governmental unit. Such a contract shall require that the existing library perform all the functions of a library within the governmental unit wanting service. In like manner a legislative body may contract for library service from a library not owned by a public corporation but maintained for free public use: PROVIDED, That such a library be subject to inspection by the state librarian and be certified by him or her as maintaining a proper standard. Any school district may contract for school library service from any existing library, such service to be paid for from funds available to the school district for library purposes.” RCW 27.12.180.


When exploring funding possibilities, think about grants. A wide variety of funding entities, including state agencies, library and professional associations, nonprofits, and private foundations, can provide help in the form of sponsorships and grants.

Individual or programming grants
Capital Funding grants

Leasehold Excise Tax

(1)(a) The legislature hereby recognizes that properties of the state of Washington, counties, school districts, and other municipal corporations are exempted by Article 7, section 1 of the Washington State Constitution from property tax obligations, but that private lessees of such public properties receive substantial benefits from governmental services provided by units of government.

(b) The legislature further recognizes that a uniform method of taxation should apply to such leasehold interests in publicly owned property.

(c) The legislature finds that lessees of publicly owned property or community centers are entitled to those same governmental services and does hereby provide for a leasehold excise tax to fairly compensate governmental units for services rendered to such lessees of publicly owned property or community centers. For the purposes of this subsection, "community center" has the same meaning as provided in RCW 84.36.010.

(2) The legislature further finds that experience gained by lessors, lessees, and the department of revenue since enactment of the leasehold excise tax under this chapter has shed light on areas in the leasehold excise statutes that need explanation and clarification. The purpose of chapter 220, Laws of 1999 is to make those changes. RCW 82.29A.010.

See also RCW 82.29A.

Library Capital Facility Areas

RCW 27.15.050 provides for the financing of library capital facility areas by authorizing general obligation bonds for such purposes. The legislature finds that it is in the interests of the people of the state of Washington to be able to establish library capital facility areas as quasi-municipal corporations and independent taxing units existing within the boundaries of existing rural county library districts, rural intercounty library districts, rural partial-county library districts, or island library districts, for the purpose of financing the construction of capital library facilities. RCW 27.15.005.

To establish a library capital facility area, the following process is laid out by RCW 27.15.020:

  • A written request, signed by a majority of the members of the board of trustees of a library district, or board of trustees of a city or town library, is submitted to the county legislative authority of the county (or counties) in which the proposed area is to be established.  The request must include two goals:
    • To establish a library capital facility area;
    • To submit a ballot proposition under RCW 27.15.050 to finance library capital facilities.

The request must also include:

    • A description of the boundaries of the library capital facility area;
    • A copy of the resolution of the legislative authority of each city or town, and board of trustees of each library district, with territory included within the proposed area indicating both of the following:
      • Its approval of the creation of the proposed area;
      • An agreement on how election costs will be paid for the ballot proposition.
  • The legislative authority of the county or counties affected by the proposal submits separate ballot propositions to the voters at a general or special election to authorize establishment of such a district and to finance the library capital facilities by issuing general indebtedness and imposing excess levies to retire the indebtedness.
  • A simple majority vote is required for approval of the creation of a library capital facility area.

See also RCW 27.15.040

Local Infrastructure Financing Tool Program (LIFT)

The legislature recognizes that the state as a whole benefits from investment in public infrastructure because it promotes community and economic development. Public investment stimulates business activity and helps create jobs; stimulates the redevelopment of brownfields and blighted areas in the inner city; lowers the cost of housing; and promotes efficient land use. The legislature finds that these activities generate revenue for the state and that it is in the public interest to invest in these projects through a credit against the state sales and use tax and an allocation of property tax revenue to those sponsoring local governments that can demonstrate the expected returns to the state. RCW 39.102.010.

See also RCW 39.102

Timber Tax Revenues

The MRSC provides the following description of this tax on their web page, County Timber Revenues - Payments and Taxes:

“Counties are authorized to impose an excise tax on each person engaging in business as a harvester of timber on private land. This tax, based on the stumpage value of timber harvested for sale or for commercial or industrial use, is credited against the state's excise tax. The Department of Revenue certifies to the State Treasurer the amount of the excise tax collected to be distributed to participating counties each quarter. The four percent county tax on timber harvested from private lands, less prorated administrative costs, is distributed back to the county of origin.”

More information about the Timber Excise Tax may be found in the online publication, Understanding Washington’s Timber Excise Tax from the Washington State Department of Revenue.

See also RCW 84.33.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel for specific concerns.

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