Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Library Challenge

Tomorrow night, the City Council will hear a report from Jackie Griffin, the Ventura County Library Agency director, about her proposal to consolidate library services in Ventura. This proposal – which would involve closing Wright Library near Ventura College, moving its collection to Foster Library downtown, and expanding Foster’s hours – is obviously very controversial. I don’t think I heard from so many constituents even during the 911 fee controversy.

Let me talk a little about how library decisions get made; why tough decisions about the libraries in Ventura have to be made; and what some of the options are.

First, some details about how decisions get made:

This issue won’t reach resolution tomorrow night. The final decision-maker here is not the City Council, though the City’s views will be given great weight. Through a complicated power-sharing agreement between the county and the six cities that are in the county system, the County Board of Supervisors has the final say, but our county’s Library Services Commission, which includes one elected representative from the county and each of the six cities in the system, also has great influence. The supervisors can overturn the recommendations of this commission only on a four-fifths vote. The County Library Commission will meet on Thuresday, February 5th, at 6:30 p.m. in the Topping Room at Foster Library. (I have served on the County Library Commission for more than five years and I am currently the chair.)

Here in Ventura, we also have a City Library Advisory Commission, whose job it is to advise the Council on library matters, and so far the Council has not sought the advice of these local library experts. The City Library Commission is scheduled to meet next Tuesday night, February 3rd.

Second, let me move on to some of the factors that are forcing this issue now as well as some background on how the library system works.

Part of the crisis is, as advertised, a budget crunch. But it’s not just that the County Library Agency has less money than anticipated. It’s also that there’s a built-in tension in the way the county library system is put together, which has a particular effect on Ventura.

Some of you may remember that during the recession of the early ‘90s, library hours were cut extremely. Wright and Foster were open only 16 hours a week, and they were open on alternate dates. Other cities in the system were similarly affected. This occurred because the state shifted property tax funds away from the library system (and other agencies) to schools. (Our library system is funded primarily a tiny portion of the property tax dedicated to it.)

As a result, the cities in the county system forced a change in the way the county system was run. This “memorandum of understanding” (which established the County Library Services Commission and the 4/5ths vote requirement) was based on two fundamental principals:

First, the property tax collected inside each city’s service area should be spent in that service area. Our service area includes not just the City but also Montalvo, Faria and Solimar beaches, and a few other unincorporated areas. This generates about $2.5 million per year in revenue for Ventura’s libraries.

Second, each library should be open a predictable number of hours, depending on its classification. For large libraries, like Foster, that number was 55 hours hours a week. (For more than 80 years, Foster was the central library for the entire county.) For community libraries, like Wright, that number was 40 hours a week.

Ventura is the only city in the system with both a large library and a community library, and so therefore under the agreement we are guaranteed far more hours of library service per week than any other city. (Avenue Library, a “neighborhood” library, is operated mostly, though not entirely, through federal funds that the City of Ventura must spend in low-income neighborhoods like the Westside.)

To put it bluntly, the money we are guaranteed for libraries is not enough to keep Foster open 55 hours a week and Wright open 40 hours a week. Therefore, to maintain this service, the County has had to subsidize Ventura with money from other sources, including property tax from other unincorporated areas and state funds. As a longtime member of the County Library Commission I can tell you that this creates a great deal of resentment from our neighboring cities.

These funds are now diminishing, and it is virtually impossible to honor both #1 and #2 above, which are required under the memorandum of understanding. We have always known that sooner or later something will have to change.

Here are a couple of other background points about Wright and Foster:

The Wright building is owned by the City but it is on land leased from Ventura College, and the lease is up in 2015. I am sure as I can be that the College will not renew the lease and, in fact, would like to use the Wright building and/or the land sooner than 2015 because of their ongoing expansion. So, sooner or later, we will have to stop using Wright as a library.

At Foster, on the other hand, both the land and the building are owned by the City. The building was owned by the County Library Agency until 1999, when the City took title in exchange for $2 million in renovations and taking over maintenance of the building.

It is important to note that the 1999 Foster renovations were based on a rethinking of the roles of the two libraries. (I remember this because I was Chair of the City Library Advisory Commission at the time.) The idea was this:

-- Wright was intended to be – and is – a busy library where community members come in and check out books.

-- Foster was intended to have a different purpose. The 1999 renovations – paid for in part by private donations on the condition that it remain in use as a library – opened up the second floor, previously used for administrative offices. Though Foster’s longtime role as the central library for the entire county was abandoned at that time, it was intended to remain Ventura’s main library. The second floor housed a children’s library. The collection was not focused on checkouts but rather on reference books. And more than 20 Internet computers were put in for the public’s use.

In the last 10 years, Foster has not been heavily used as a children’s library. However, most of the other ideas in the 1999 plan have worked out. Wright has more checkouts than Foster, but that is partly because of the nature of the collection and the nature of the library. Foster has more reference books and more computer use, and therefore Foster has more patrons (that is, people walking through the door) than Wright.

As has been reported, the City has always assumed that, eventually, a large citywide library would be built at the Community Park. Wright could then be closed and Foster might be converted, at least partly, to a different use. We have some money set aside for planning and design of such a library, but no such planning and design has been initiated yet, so that’s a long way away.

Third, let me talk about some of the options we have.

County Library Director Jackie Griffin has suggested closing Wright and consolidating virtually all library services at Foster. I admit this does not make geographical sense. But it may make sense operationally. At 35,000 square feet, Foster is the only library building presently available to us that is big enough to serve as the community’s only library. At 12,000 square feet, Wright is not big enough to serve that role.

A number of people have complained that Foster does not have enough parking and that the homeless often linger in or around the building. It is true that Foster does not have a large expanse of dedicated parking immediately adjacent to the building, as Wright does; but there are several thousand parking spaces in downtown Ventura, including hundreds in the parking garage a short walk away. It is also true that Foster, like other downtown locations, does have issues with the homeless; but in the last 10 years block that Foster is on has become one of the busiest places in the city, so there are always lots of people around and many “eyes on the street”.

A second option would be for the city to subsidize library operations to keep both Wright and Foster open. In the past, the city has sometimes provided $100,000 toward this goal. But more is needed this year, and the City Council is in the process of figuring out how to cut $5-8 million from its own budget because of low revenue. City subsidy is not an option.

A third option would be to cut hours at both libraries in order to keep both of them open. This is what the county did back in the early ‘90s, and I can tell you that everybody in town hated it. Nobody could remember which library was open which day, and of course large chunks of the collection were inaccessible to patrons no matter what day of the week it is. Beyond that, this is a kind of “hunkering down” solution that assumes we can return to the current situation when things “go back to normal”. Given what I know about the inherent stresses in the library system, “normal” will not return. We cannot sustain the situation as it currently stands.

A fourth option that a number of people have suggested is to make structural changes at Wright and/or Foster that would increase the amount of library space available at Wright and convert some of Foster to another use. Some people have suggested that we cover the Wright patio to create more space. Others have suggested that we move library offices back into the second floor of Foster or even rent it out to private offices. Both of these ideas have merit, but they would require planning, design, time, and up-front funding that we do not have.

A fifth option would be to leave the county system altogether and try to make this work on our own. This is an understandable reaction, given everybody’s level of frustration. However, every analysis I have ever seen suggests that running our own library system would cost more than being in the county system – so we would simply be faced with the same set of choices. Moorpark pulled out rashly last year and has had nothing but difficulty trying to provide library service. Also, if we pulled out we would lose that part of our funding base located in unincorporated areas – especially the property tax from the Faria and Solimar beach areas, which provide several hundred thousands of dollars per year

A sixth option would be to find ways to ensure that East Ventura retains important library services even if Wright is closed. I personally do not want to close Wright if it leaves East Ventura without a children’s library, without large print books, and possibly without the popular fiction that is so popular among patrons. I think we need to find ways to make those services available in locations other than at Foster. I don’t know what all the options are, but I do believe that we might be able to work with Ventura College to provide some (though not all) of these services at their library. Some people have complained that they do not want to use the college library because parking is so limited; but again I think we could work with the college on that issue.

Also, a number of people have pointed out that the Wright building has certain important cultural assets, including a garden memorializing Johnny Cash’s first wife as well as some of the city’s public art. These are important considerations, but what happens to the Wright building is a different question than whether it is used as a library.

A closing thought

I realize that most library advocates might not agree with me, but I think we might want to view this as a “fortunate problem” to have. Ventura’s libraries have guaranteed funding of approximately $2.5 million. I know of no community service provided by the City that has such ample funding earmarked for it. The issue as I see it is not so much whether to keep a particular library open, but how best to use the resources we have to provide the best library service we can.

For many years I and other library advocates in Ventura have known that we have a difficult choice: We can have two libraries in different parts of town, providing suboptimal service, or we can have one really good library. We have always chosen the first. Other cities, such as Simi Valley, which are of a similar size and have similar financial resources available, have chosen the second. Because of the circumstances I have described above, we have to face this question sooner or later, so I am glad it has come before us now.

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