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COVER STORY : Taking Libraries Off the Shelf : Threat of More Budget Cutbacks Spurs Book Lovers Into Taking Action

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The architect, the printer, the librarian and eight others trickle into the Altadena home and sit around a pine table for a campaign strategy session.

The talk is of fund-raising letters, campaign mailers, endorsements--the elements of a successful campaign. The candidate: the local library.

Fearing that budget cuts will decimate their library, the Altadena activists are gearing up a campaign to persuade voters to pass a library tax June 7.

“I want my 8 1/2-month-old to be able to go to the library like I used to,” said Reynolds Cafferata, 27, chairman of the Save-Our-Altadena-Library committee.

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The Altadena activists are part of a wave of San Gabriel Valley book lovers who are going on the offensive to save their libraries. They are drawing their inspiration from neighboring Pasadena, where voters overwhelmingly approved a tax last year to keep their library system from being gutted.

Along with Altadena, residents of South Pasadena have launched a similar campaign. The South Pasadena Library, which will celebrate its centennial next year, will have to close three days a week if local voters reject the proposed tax. It currently operates seven days per week.

“There’s no other institution which does things for all the people,” said Jan Wetzel, 66, a retired business executive who chairs the Committee to Protect Our Library. “That’s true whether you’re young or old, well-educated, self-educated, rich or poor. The library serves all those people.”

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Four other cities, which are served by the financially battered county library system, have dipped into municipal coffers to prop up services until the end of June.

* The Walnut City Council decided to spend $102,200 to open its branch library three additional days a week, for a total of five days of service.

“That’s a basic service as far as I’m concerned,” said Walnut Councilman H. Thomas Sykes, who strongly supported the bailout. “We really do need the library open, especially with some of the school districts cutting back on staffing in their libraries.”

* The Diamond Bar City Council voted to spend $70,000 to add a fourth and fifth day of weekly service and to buy more books.

* Duarte council members decided to spend $16,000 for a third day of weekly service.

* El Monte officials are spending $9,000 for books and materials for their branch library.

Meanwhile, in San Dimas, Claremont and La Verne, officials and residents have formed committees to investigate how their county library branches can be kept open more days.

Library funding has even become a campaign issue in La Verne, where city officials recently decided against spending money on the county library. A candidate for City Council is running on a platform of using local tax money to increase library services.

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Such actions across the San Gabriel Valley have raised the hopes of library patrons, who have watched in dismay as political events outside their control have resulted in the diminution of library services.

In 1993--for the second straight year--state legislators balanced California’s budget by taking property-tax money that would have gone to counties, cities and special districts. As a result, library directors must stand in line to secure the scarce tax dollars that do make it to local governments.

“California public library services continue to deteriorate as local jurisdictions withdraw increasing amounts of funding from libraries to bolster police, fire and other safety service,” according to a recently released report by the California State Library, a state agency that, among other things, administers grants to improve library services in California.

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California ranks at the bottom nationwide in per capita public library hours, the report said. California offers just 72 hours per 1,000 people, while first-place Vermont provides 379 hours per 1,000 people.

Thirteen cities in the San Gabriel Valley run their own libraries. Most of those municipal libraries have been able to get by, trimming book budgets and making spending cuts in behind-the-scenes operations while largely maintaining hours and services.

In the tax-rich city of Irwindale, library service actually increased last year by 20 hours a week.

But in some cases, municipally financed libraries have suffered.

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Before its library tax passed, Pasadena had cut weekly hours at its main library from 70 to 46. Hours at the city’s eight branch libraries fell from 40 to 32 per week.

Alhambra closed a library branch and Monterey Park cut Saturday service. The library in Covina was one of the hardest hit. Covina officials slashed library operations from six to four days a week and have no plans to restore the hours.

But Covina is flourishing compared to some local branches of the huge Los Angeles County Library, with a budget that has fallen during the past two years from $64 million to $47.6 million.

During that period, nine library branches were closed, including three in the San Gabriel Valley.

Operating hours were slashed at the 87 remaining libraries, including 21 branches in the San Gabriel Valley. The hardest-hit branches, including seven in the San Gabriel Valley, are now open only two days a week.

And things could get worse. County librarian Sandra F. Reuben said the county may have to close as many as 50 more of its libraries on July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. Faced with continuing financial problems, the County Board of Supervisors is expected to make further cuts in library spending to balance its budget for the new year.

“Maybe we’ll find a means to bridge us through, but right now I don’t know where that’s going to come from,” Reuben said. “I’m even going to be turning to users of libraries who can give $10 or $15 each.”

In the meantime, library officials throughout the area deluge Edward M. Szynaka, Pasadena’s library director, with calls seeking information about how to mount a library-tax effort. When Szynaka held a meeting last month to pass on campaign tips, representatives of more than 30 city and county libraries attended, including people from Altadena, South Pasadena and other San Gabriel Valley cities.

The reason for this interest: An overwhelming 79.9% of those voting last year approved taxing themselves to save the city’s eight library branches from closure. The tax raises $1.3 million a year. Homeowners pay $20 a year, while apartment owners pay $13 per unit and non-residential property owners contribute $147.

As a result, the Pasadena Library is flourishing. Instead of closing eight branches, library officials restored operating hours that were cut in recent years and are working to fill positions that were left vacant, officials said.

Strong fund raising, a good corps of volunteers and a deft absentee ballot campaign were keys to the victory, Szynaka said in a recent interview.

Library taxes require two-thirds approval from the electorate--a high hurdle. But right off, library proponents everywhere have something going for them, Szynaka said. “In the minds of the public, the library is pure good.”

Like the county, the Altadena Library District suffered extensive budget cuts at the hands of state lawmakers. The district had a $1.4-million budget two years ago compared with $882,360 this year, said district librarian William J. Tema.

Library officials there decided to close the library on Sundays and on Tuesday nights beginning last October to save money. One employee was laid off. Library officials have spent $305,000 in reserves over the past two years to avoid bigger cuts, but the reserves will be depleted after this year.

The library’s shelves for new books attest to the cutbacks. They were empty on a recent afternoon.

A nearby sign reads, “The children of Altadena need these books. Can you donate them?” It lists the 1994 Newbery Award winner, “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry, and this year’s Randolph Caldecott Medal winner, “Grandfather’s Journey,” by Allen Say.

If Altadena’s tax measure fails, officials say they will have to close their main library two of the six days a week it is now open. The branch library will open two days instead of five.

“We can’t take a chance on losing this (tax measure),” Tema said. “Our budget cuts would be too drastic.”

If the tax passes, it will raise about $430,000 a year to restore the funding lost the past two years, Tema said.

Under the proposal, the owners of single-family homes will pay $29 a year, apartment owners $20 per unit and commercial and industrial property owners $59 to $79.

Tema and the Save Our Altadena Library committee began organizing late last year to push for the library tax. The group has hired political consultant Wendy Soltes to manage the campaign, which will include telephone banks and direct mail. So far the campaign has raised about $10,000; its goal is $55,000, Tema said.

The Altadena campaign should benefit from the wide use its library gets; the library’s meeting room is a key gathering place for community groups, Soltes said. Also, Save Our Altadena Library has won key endorsements, including the support of the Chamber of Commerce. That contrasts with the campaign in Pasadena, where business leaders opposed the library tax.

But Soltes said the Altadena campaign lacks the well-organized cadre of wealthy library supporters who contributed about $200,000 to the campaign war chest in Pasadena.

So far, no formal opposition has surfaced in Altadena. But that could change after word of the proposed tax spreads.

“When I walk around . . . and talk to people about the library tax most of the people are furious,” said Steven Lamb, who is on the town council of the unincorporated community. “So if that continues, I won’t support it.”

This is Altadena’s second try at a library tax. Voters rejected a tax measure in 1983.

If the current measure passes, it will stay in effect for five years, as would the South Pasadena tax.

The South Pasadena library has been spared budget cuts so far. But the library’s funding will fall from $982,000 this year to $762,000 next year if voters don’t approve the library tax, officials said.

The library has the city’s largest operating budget after the police and fire departments, and city officials say they have no choice but to trim it to make up for state funding cuts. Along with reducing the library’s operation to four days a week, the cuts would result in the layoffs of nearly 20 workers. Its special programs for children, including story time and its summer reading program, would probably die, said city librarian Mary Lou Wigley.

“We would go from a full-service library to check in, check out and reference,” Wigley said.

The proposed tax would cost homeowners $24 to $48 a year, depending on the size of the house. The owners of apartments and non-residential buildings would be taxed as well. The levy would be $12 per apartment and $24 to $96 for non-residential buildings. The tax is expected to raise about $220,000 a year.

If the tax measure passes, the library budget and programming will remain stable, officials say.

South Pasadena’s Committee to Protect Our Library will run its campaign without the help--and expense--of a consultant. The group, which includes Mayor James C. Hodge Jr. and Councilman Jim Woollacott, hopes to raise $30,000 to $40,000 but has nothing so far.

The South Pasadena City Council voted to put the measure on the ballot earlier this month.

“I don’t feel we can sit back and relax, but I think there’s sufficient time to be successful,” Hodge said.

A handful of residents called the South Pasadena Taxpayers Assn. opposes the measure because it would collect revenue only from property owners and not renters, who also benefit from the library. Bob Cook, a spokesman for the association, said he would prefer to raise money by increasing the city’s utility tax, which hits both groups.

“It’s unfortunate we have to oppose the library tax because that’s almost like going against motherhood and apple pie,” he said.

While county officials say they would like a tax of their own to benefit the county library system, the two-thirds voter approval would be a difficult, and costly, standard to meet in a 4,079-square-mile county with 3.5 million registered voters.

The Book on Libraries

In an era of tight budgets, library directors must stand in line to secure funding to keep their institutions open. Here’s a look at library services across the San Gabriel Valley and prospects for the future.

City Type Days Pending Developments Alhambra City T-Sat None Altadena Main Spec. Dist. M-Sat Closes W,F if tax measure fails Altadena Branch Spec. Dist. M-F Closes M,W,F if tax measure fails Arcadia City M-Sat None Arcadia (Live Oak) County T,F Poss. cuts in July Azusa City M-Sat None Baldwin Park County M,W,F Poss. cuts in July Claremont County M,T,Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July Covina City T,W,Th,Sat None Covina (Charter Oak) County W,F Poss. cuts in July Diamond Bar County M-Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July Duarte County T,Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July El Monte County M,W,F Poss. cuts in July El Monte (Norwood) County T,W Poss. cuts in July Glendora City M-Sat None Hacienda Heights County M,Tu,Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July Irwindale City M-Sat None LaCanadaFlintridge County M,W,Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July La Puente County M,W Poss. cuts in July La Puente (Sunkist) County T,F Poss. cuts in July La Verne County T,Th Poss. cuts in July Monrovia City M-Sat None Monterey Park City M-F None Pasadena Main City Seven days None Pasadena Branches City M-Th,Sat None Pomona City M-Th,Sat None Rosemead County M,T,Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July Rowland Heights County M,W,F,Sat Poss. cuts in July San Dimas County W,F,Sat Poss. cuts in July San Gabriel County M,F Poss. cuts in July San Marino City M-Sat None Sierra Madre City M-Sat None South El Monte County T,F Poss. cuts in July South Pasadena City Seven days Will close Th,F,Sat if tax measure fails Temple City County T-Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July Walnut County T-Sat Poss. cuts in July West Covina County T-Th,Sat Poss. cuts in July

Note: Bradbury and Industry have no libraries.


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