Merced County to Close Its Public Libraries : Budget: Decision to shutter facilities follows loss of state funding and failure of sales tax measure.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what would be the largest library closure in California history, the Merced County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to shut down its entire public library system by year's end due to a financial crunch in the San Joaquin Valley farming county.

Book checkout at the county's 19 libraries will halt on Dec. 7, with all borrowed materials due back the following day. The closure will cost 83 workers their jobs.

"It's a tragedy for the community, a real tragedy," Merced County Librarian Linda Wilson said after listening to four hours of emotional public testimony in favor of keeping the libraries open. "There are no other libraries. We are the public library for the county."

Libraries have deteriorated statewide because of local budget problems and a shaky state economy. The latest blow was the Legislature's decision in June to take $2.5 billion in property taxes away from local government to pay for education.

Four public library systems have shut down temporarily in the past--Alameda County in 1978, Shasta County in 1987, Butte County in 1989 and tiny San Benito County earlier this year. In the last fiscal year, the mammoth Los Angeles County Library system closed nine branches and parked one bookmobile.

But the Merced County closure leaves those other shutdowns in the dust and strands nearly 200,000 rural residents--from schoolchildren to retirees--without books, reference works, videos, audiocassettes, stock market information and a quiet, warm place to read and study.

"The very people who need (libraries) the most are the very ones who will suffer the most," said an angry Margaret McDonald, vice president of the Merced County Library Commission and the nonprofit group Merced Friends of the Library. "We have a great minority community, an Asian community that desperately needs the library. That library is packed every night with kids, studying and reading books and stuff."

The reason for the closure is twofold, McDonald said. First, in an effort to balance the state budget, Merced County lost $11.9 million in the shuffle of state budget funds in Sacramento.

In addition, local voters voted down an additional 0.5% sales tax Nov. 2. The measure lost by just 34 votes. County Administrator Clark Channing recommended closing the libraries and all but three parks to avoid a $1.8-million deficit. The library's annual budget is $1.4 million, Wilson said.

A report released earlier this month by the California state librarian said that the state's public library services are continuing a many-year slide as local officials devote more money to bolstering police and fire services. County libraries have been hardest hit.

This fiscal year there will be a $47-million drop in local support to public libraries statewide, including a $15-million decrease in book budgets and a more than $24-million cut in staff salaries, the report said.

"We're in some respects an endangered species in California," said Cameron Robertson, assistant state librarian. "The school libraries here have been gone for years. Our fear is that public libraries will go also. . . . Merced is the largest public library system--city or county--we have seen close to date."

Alameda County's library system closed down for several months after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Although the county's population is larger, the system had only 12 branches and a bookmobile when it closed. In addition, several cities in the area ran their own libraries, which stayed open to serve the public, unlike the situation in Merced County.

Officials said the Merced libraries would be closed but not dismantled in case money is found later to reopen some branches. Wilson said the libraries have a slim chance of remaining open beyond the end of the year if someone comes up with a plan or additional money by Dec. 10.

"It's up to the communities now," Wilson said. "As directed by the Board of Supervisors, I'm willing to help in any way I can to keep it open. But I don't have a Plan B."

The Merced closure has been the talk of the state's librarians in recent days as they took stock of their own precarious situations. In Contra Costa County, County Librarian Anne Marie Gold called the Merced situation "inconceivable."

"In January, when kids leave school in the afternoon and have a paper to do, there won't be a library to go to," said Gold, who is also a spokeswoman for the California Library Assn. "When a local business person in Merced needs information for their company, they aren't going to get it. . . . I think Merced County is the tip of the iceberg in this state."

In Butte County, Nancy Brower, director of libraries, noted that even during the Depression, the state's libraries remained open. "Why are things different now?," she asked. "That was a more despairing time than this. . . . How do people survive without libraries? Everyone relies on them. It's the young, the old. It's the ones who read well, the ones who don't."

Even if a library system reopens, the damage that happens during a months-long closure is sometimes impossible to repair. Some books, magazines and reference materials go out of date very quickly; if they are not purchased on publication, they cannot be replaced, librarians said. Leases on buildings are also lost.

After Shasta County closed its 10 libraries several times in 1987 and 1988, it shrank to a system of three branches, said Carolyn Chambers, interim library director.

"I maintain that libraries are sort of like hospitals," Chambers said. "You may not have a need today but you may tomorrow."

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