New Tax to Save Libraries Recommended : Funding: Task force report says up to 10 county branches will have to close unless shortfall can be offset.
To avoid closing county libraries, a task force is proposing a new tax to solve the library system’s worsening budget crisis.
“The need is crucial for doing something to finance the libraries adequately so they can stay open. The literary life of a community is at stake,” said John F. Dean, county superintendent of schools and a member of the panel that suggested the library tax.
The library task force estimated that the new tax would raise $8.8 million in the next budget year, but the report did not specify how much that would add to the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill.
The task force this week proposed a ballot initiative that would ask county residents to vote to establish a special district, a benefit assessment or parcel tax earmarked for libraries.
Proponents of the tax believe Orange County residents would support it. They note that other California cities, including San Francisco, South Pasadena, Oakland and San Francisco, have bit the bullet and voted for such taxes.
The first general election in which such a library tax initiative could be considered would be in April, 1996, although a special election could be called earlier.
“There has been more support expressed for libraries than anything else except maybe public protection,” said Ernie Schneider, county administrative officer and chairman of the library task force. “When we cut back on hours and book purchases, the supervisors get calls.”
But some city officials expressed reservations Thursday about whether the proposed bailout of county libraries would hurt city-owned libraries or put additional financial pressure on cities.
Orange County residents will not easily accept a new tax, said Paul O. Brady Jr., city manager in Irvine and president of the Orange County City Managers Assn. He noted that it was only a few years ago that county voters agreed to a new highway improvement tax.
The library task force report, which was received this week by the County Board of Supervisors, is a draft and may be altered before it goes to the board for final approval.
The draft report proposes numerous potential fund-raising measures, such as increasing library late fines and charges for replacing lost library cards. But the task force concluded that a new tax, which it describes as “clearly an unpalatable option,” is the only way to avoid further reduction in library services.
“The bottom line is we are short $8 million to $10 million,” Schneider said. And only about $1 million of that shortfall can be met by non-tax methods, he added.
The county libraries, the report noted, are suffering from state legislation that in 1993 shifted a significant amount of property tax revenue from the county to the state.
In reaction, operating days and hours at county libraries were reduced by 40%, the purchase of new books and other materials was sharply cut back, staffing was cut and maintenance was postponed.
Even to operate at this diminished level, the task force report said, the county had to dip into reserves.
But those reserves will run out next year when even more drastic measures would be necessary to balance the budget without another revenue source, the task force said.
To offset the shortfall, Bert Scott, director of the county General Services Agency and co-chairman of the task force, estimated that 6 to 10 of the county’s 27 libraries would have to close.
Dolores Madrigal, manager of the county’s branch library in Laguna Beach, said, “If the libraries could depend on a consistent source of revenue we could go on with our business of serving the public.”
Costa Mesa Mayor Sandra L. Genis said she believes the county is obligated to provide library services with the share of property tax revenue it already claims for that purpose.
“It seems unfair that they would continue to take the same property tax split but cease to provide the service,” she said.
Genis said that if a separate library revenue source is established, she would like to study the feasibility of empowering some authority other than the county to administer the funds and operate the libraries.
Facing an anticipated $10-million shortfall next year, Orange County libraries are searching for ways to generate more revenue. Some possibilities, recommended by a county task force:
* Increase fees and charges such as those for overdue books and replacing library cards.
* Introduce fee-based services, renting best sellers, research and printing services.
* Become more aggressive in raising funds from individuals and businesses.
* Establish partnerships with private businesses to include sale of retail products in gift shops.
* Contract with schools to provide students with library services.
* Add new revenue from a community service district, benefit assessment or parcel tax. A new tax, if approved by voters, would be reflected on property tax bills.
Source: Orange County Public Library Task Force