Thursday, February 12, 2009

Library Update

By now, everybody in Ventura seems to have recognized that we will have to reduce library service later this year unless we can come up with more money to pay for it. Thankfully, last Thursday (February 5th), we got a two-month reprieve from the Ventura County Library Services Commission.

Now comes the hard part: Figuring out what to do. By April 1, we in Ventura either have to raise enough money to keep both Foster and Wright libraries open full-time; or we have to agree on what service reductions we can live with. There may yet be a way out of this, but the truth is that the library situation is only the beginning. Our economy is so lousy that, this year and next, we will probably have to make hard choices on every single public service we enjoy here in Ventura. Sorry to be gloomy, but that’s the truth.

Our libraries are funded primarily by a small share of the property tax in the Ventura area that goes to the county library system. That’s about $2.1 million this year. In addition, the San Buenaventura Friends of the Library generously raise more than $100,000 a year; the city puts in $90,000 a year in federal funds for which only Avenue Library is eligible; and various other grants and bequests add a little more, so that we put about $2.5 million in. Unfortunately, it takes about $2.8 million to run the libraries at their current level, which includes 55 hours a week at Foster and 40 hours a week at Wright. Traditionally this shortfall has been made up by funds from the state or elsewhere in the county, but the Library Agency has a significant deficit too and can no longer subsidize us.

Most of our neighboring cities put additional money into the kitty to get additional service. Ojai has a parcel tax. Thousand Oaks and Camarillo provide huge contributions from their general fund (meaning millions of dollars). In Port Hueneme, private foundations and a small city contribution have provided steady supplemental funding. Other than the occasional last-minute bailout of $50,000 or $100,000, Ventura has never done this. And with a looming deficit of $10 million or more at City Hall, the city is not likely to start now.

Our wonderful San Buenaventura Friends of the Library have already started a fundraising campaign to try to raise the $300,000 to keep current service available for another year. In addition, the City Council is considering placing a citywide sales tax on the ballot later this year in order to raise funds to maintain vital services, including libraries. At the very least, I am hoping the Friends can raise enough money to keep Foster and Wright open full-time until a sales tax election can take place.

If you’d like to make a donation, write a check to “Save Wright Library – San Buenaventura Friends of the Library” and send it to the Friends at P.O. Box 403, Ventura 93002.

Meanwhile, our city Library Advisory Commission (different from the county commission) will spend the next month or so debate what the best options are for reduced service if the money cannot be raised.

As you all know by now, county library staff has suggested a consolidation plans that would include permanently closing Wright, moving the collection to Foster, opening Foster on Sundays, and possibly adding a children’s library at the Pacific View Mall and a large-print collection at the Ventura College Library.

Closing Wright makes sense in some ways, because Foster is much larger and can accommodate the entire collection, whereas we will lose the land lease on Wright in six years anyway. But Wright is a beloved community asset, which is more centrally located than Foster. And nobody wants to close a library.

So, at the City Council’s direction, the Library Advisory Commission will assess at least two other alternatives. One will almost certainly be to reduce hours at both Wright and Foster. The library staff has initially suggested this would mean Foster would be open three days a week and Wright two. Although this would keep some service at Wright, it would also mean valuable resources at Foster – including the 24 internet computers and the genealogy section – would be unavailable most of the time.

The Library Advisory Commission is planning several meetings to deal with this question. I will keep you posted as to when and where this will occur.

Sometime in March or early April, all these options will come back to the City Council for further discussion. By then we’ll know how much money the Friends have raised; we may know whether a sales tax election will be held and when; and the community will have debated a wide range of alternatives.

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