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Few Cities Adopting County Library Fee : Government: Only two of 16 area cities with endangered branches have OKd special property tax. Facilities face staff cutbacks, reduced hours.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

West Covina Councilman Michael R. Touhey says he has always been a book lover and a tax opponent, so deciding the fate of the local branch of the financially troubled Los Angeles County Library system was one of the toughest decisions of his council tenure.

Should he vote to allow the county to increase West Covina homeowners’ property taxes by $28.50 a year, or see the county further cut back hours and services at its local branch?

Touhey was among the council majority last week who went with the latter.

“The library is a fantastic part of this community. But no matter how great the cause, a council cannot vote for taxes to support it: That’s a decision for the people,” said Touhey, although the council is not putting the issue to a vote.

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West Covina is not alone.

In nine of the 16 San Gabriel Valley cities served by county branches, councils have rejected the idea of joining a proposed county district that would impose the fee in order to maintain library services, which already have been severely cut.

County supervisors, who tentatively approved the plan last month, will vote Aug. 30 whether to create a county library assessment district and impose the fee in unincorporated areas. But the fee can be collected in incorporated cities only if the municipalities agree to be in the district.

Council members in Bradbury, Claremont, Diamond Bar, La Puente, Rosemead, Temple City and West Covina have voted against joining the district, which would restore more than $30 million in state funding cuts that led the county to shut 10 branches, lay off 300 employees and reduce hours at many branches to two or three days a week. Baldwin Park, in effect, decided against joining the district by agreeing to take no action.

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In San Dimas and La Verne, the councils decided to put the issue on the November ballot for an advisory vote.

Countywide, of the 52 cities served by the library system, only 13 cities, including Duarte and El Monte, had decided to join the district by Wednesday morning; 22 had opted out. Seven more decided to take no action. Still wrestling with the idea are 10 cities, including La Canada Flintridge, San Gabriel, South El Monte and Walnut.

County Librarian Sandra Reuben said the fee is the only way this year to resuscitate the battered county system because a vote on a parcel tax would take too long and would require two-thirds of voters’ support.

The fee would offset county library funding reductions that resulted from state lawmakers’ decision to balance California’s budget by reallocating property tax money that had gone to local governments.

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Reuben said branches face more cuts and closures without the fee. “A city refusing to be in the district can expect to see a scaling back in library hours, new books and staff,” she said. “A few closures are likely.”

Reuben said she has enough money to keep libraries open at their current levels until Oct. 1. Avoiding further cutbacks would mean that the supervisors and councils must act by Tuesday to get the fee on the next property tax bills.

However, city council members across the valley say they fear political fallout from the fee and say state lawmakers are passing the buck on taxes.

“The two council members who opposed new taxes like this won the last election here,” said Temple City Mayor Harry Budds. “The people of Temple City’s message is clear: They don’t want taxes.” He said people he has spoken to love the library but are not willing to dip into their pockets any more, especially in difficult economic times.

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Rosemead Mayor Robert Bruesch also blamed state lawmakers.

“The state Legislature has appropriated the property taxes used to pay for libraries to pay its own bills,” he said.

Some council members said they were disturbed that they would have no future say about fee levels. The district could raise the fees unilaterally, and there would be no guarantee that the county library system would keep all branches open.

“Once we’d voted for it, it would be out of our hands,” said La Puente Councilman Louis R. Perez. “If the county closed one of La Puente’s (two) libraries afterward, it’s our heads the people would come for, not county officials’.”

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But West Covina Councilman Benjamin Wong, who supports the district, said the council members have forgotten that libraries are more than lines in a budget. “Libraries are where children learn. I want my child, who is in elementary school, to continue to be able to use our local library.”

County officials expect supervisors to approve the assessment fee Monday.

Reuben said a bill she backs permitting local governments to set up special assessment districts for libraries with the support of a majority of the area’s voters is awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson’s signature.


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