Giving up on hope that the state Legislature would help with the problem, the Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday set out to resuscitate the foundering county library system by creating a way to impose new property taxes.
By a 3-1 vote, with Supervisor Mike Antonovich opposing, the supervisors tentatively endorsed a proposal to raise $30 million annually by charging property owners in areas covered by the county library district a maximum fee of $30 per parcel.
The library district, which serves 3.3 million people in 52 cities and unincorporated areas with 87 branch libraries, would use the revenue to restore more than $30 million a year in state cutbacks that have forced the county to close 10 branches, lay off nearly 300 employees and cut dozens of libraries back to only two or three days of operation a week.
The supervisors acted after the failure of a two-year effort to pass state legislation to raise the county's library revenues. Those efforts are continuing, but even if successful, the money would be received too late to help the libraries this fiscal year.
The delay in state legislation means the county's tax increase is "the only viable option for the libraries," said Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed.
Although the county has the authority to create a special district and impose the tax in unincorporated areas, the tax can be collected in incorporated cities only if local governments agree to it.
Under state law, so-called Mello-Roos districts can be created by local governments to levy special tax assessments on property, with the money often financing public improvements such as streets and sewers.
Cities that refuse to join the tax district would continue to experience reductions in library hours and services, Librarian Sandra Reuben said. But their refusal could also create headaches for the county in cases where residents of a recalcitrant city continued to use a nearby library in the unincorporated area without paying for the restoration of services.
To win support for the proposal, library officials plan an intensive lobbying effort, including a series of public meetings in communities from Agoura Hills to Lakewood. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue Aug. 20.
"It's only eight cents a day," Reuben told the board Tuesday. "We think that's a lot of value for that amount of money."
But Antonovich, whose district includes the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and part of the San Fernando Valley, said residents of the library district should be given a chance to register their opinions on the tax in an advisory referendum in November.
Supervisors Ed Edelman, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke declined to support such a referendum. Supervisor Deane Dana was absent.
County officials had long pinned their hopes on several proposals in the state Legislature, including a measure--vetoed last year by Gov. Pete Wilson--that would have allowed the county to tax all residents of the library district, including those in the 52 cities.