March 2016 Bar Bulletin
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A Purse with Simple Yet Complicated Strings: How a County Law Library Is Funded

By Rick Stroup
Interim Director

 

We are often asked, “Where does your money come from?” This sometimes comes from general interest and sometimes because someone has an axe to grind about a fee, the age of our computers or the fact that we don’t own a particular resource.

Usually the logic follows one of two tracks: “Because you are a public library and I pay my taxes, this should happen …” or “Because you are a bar service and I pay my bar dues, this should happen …” County law libraries like ours function just like most libraries do, but where our money comes from is a different story and begins with an unsung piece of legislation that was adopted without the governor’s signature.

In 1918, things were a bit simpler than today, at least in terms of the practice of law in Washington. There were no intermediate appellate courts, the state bar roster numbered in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands, and both Seattle and King County government offices could fit comfortably, if not amicably, into one building.

It makes sense then that the Legislature at that time, in creating county law libraries, saw fit to keep things simple there as well. The funding formula set in place allocated a small part of specific, paid civil filings in Superior Court to the operation of the law library. Later on, that formula would be expanded to include specific, paid civil filings in District Court as well.

As the Legislature is wont to do in most financial situations, the formula also set specific dollar amounts, rather than percentages or portions. Unfortunately, this means that increases to the fees charged in the superior and district courts do not automatically raise the financial boat of county law libraries. Eventually, codification of county law library statutes in the Revised Code of Washington would place them under the general umbrella of Title 27—Libraries, Museums, and Historical Activities, but county law libraries are not funded as these other institutions typically are.

So, even though county law libraries, at least in counties of our size, are required to be open to the public and we operate in most ways just like a regular public library, we don’t receive any direct revenue from property, sales or excise taxes, and we don’t benefit from library bonds or levies. Likewise, though we work with members of the bar and the judiciary every day and devote a significant portion of our revenue toward supporting the needs of those groups, we don’t receive any direct revenue from local or state bar dues.

When someone sues someone else in a civil matter in either Superior Court or District Court, and that suit falls within one of the proper categories and the filing fee isn’t waived for some reason, we get a small, fixed amount. In 2015, that mechanism provided 77 percent of our income.

Where did the other 23 percent come from? Because we operated from two Superior Court locations, we received direct funding from the King County general fund to pay for the operations of just our Kent facility. Our Seattle facility — the “big” one — received no funding from King County.

Everything else came from revenue we generated ourselves. The lion’s share came from annual fees that law firms, bar members and the public elected to pay for the ability to check out materials. The remainder came from fees for reserving conference rooms, making photocopies, scanning paper documents, notary services and even the sale of small office supplies.

So, the story of “where our money comes from” begins with an old formula that worked well many moons ago, but is definitely showing its age and is a bit confused by assumptions about how money is and is not connected to those we serve.

 

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