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County OKs Assessment for Library System : Finances: Effort to infuse $16 million a year into troubled network faces legal challenges. Molina says she may reverse her approval of plan, which passed on a 3-2 vote.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a vote that is certain to face legal challenges, the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a new property assessment that will infuse $16 million a year into the county’s troubled library system and bring nearly 60 branches back to full service before the end of the year.

“The system was in a state of potential collapse,” Supervisor Ed Edelman said. “But this finally gives the libraries a permanent funding base and the stability they need.”

A near-capacity crowd of about 700 library supporters and tax foes cheered, booed, whistled at and even serenaded the supervisors in the course of a raucous one-hour debate on the unusual plan that was championed as the last hope for learning and vilified as an end run on the now mythic Proposition 13 tax revolt.

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Under the plan, property owners in unincorporated areas and 16 cities will be assessed a special fee on their November property tax bill to fund county libraries. The fees will range from $28.50 annually for single-family homes to several hundred dollars for most commercial properties. Larger commercial and industrial projects could face assessments of several thousand dollars.

The controversial matter was narrowly approved when a reluctant Supervisor Gloria Molina agreed to side with Edelman and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana opposed the measure, saying that county residents and businesses are too heavily taxed and that ample county funds are available but are being misspent on costly health programs.

Molina’s endorsement was tempered by her request that the matter be scheduled for reconsideration in late September when county accountants will determine whether there are surplus funds from the fiscal year that just ended. Molina said she would prefer to use any surplus to fund the libraries, and said she may vote to repeal the assessment plan at a later date.

That suggestion landed like a wet blanket over the hundreds of cheering library supporters celebrating their victory and a hush quickly fell on the auditorium. Burke gaveled the meeting to a brief recess and the subdued crowd filed out of the hearing room.

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The plan faces other hurdles as well.

Jonathan Coupal, an attorney for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Assn., said his organization will sue to block the assessment, which he labeled as “unwise and illegal . . . arbitrary and irrational.”

The county is using a novel legal tactic to establish a so-called community facilities district, which allows local governments to levy fees on property owners for specific purposes. Most commonly these districts are used to build schools, sewers and other projects that benefit all property owners in new communities.

Coupal said it is ridiculous to represent that all property owners in the district would in fact benefit from the library assessment and he asked specifically how mortuaries and kennels would possibly benefit. Coupal also argued that the assessment is a thinly veiled property tax and therefore requires a two-thirds vote of the electorate.

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County Counsel DeWitt Clinton said he is confident the plan will withstand any legal challenge.

Though most of the effervescent throng at the meeting was in support of the measure, it has found only thin support among elected officials around the county.

Of the 52 cities that are part of the county library district, only 16 have voted to become part of the special assessment district. Twenty-five have voted to stay out and 11 others are undecided and therefore not a part of the plan at this time.

Among those giving their wholehearted support to the plan was the mayor of El Monte, which voted to join the assessment district.

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“I use the libraries, my children use the libraries . . . and I want the libraries to be there for my grandchildren,” said Mayor Patricia Wallach.

The county’s 89-branch library system has lost 50% of its funding in the past two years as property taxes have been siphoned off for other state and local programs. The budget cuts have caused the permanent closure of 10 libraries, the layoff of 300 workers and a 60% cutback in library hours. More than half of the county’s libraries are now open just two days a week and even the largest are open just four days a week.

Without the new assessment fees, 51 additional branches would have to be closed and hours scaled back even further at the remaining branches, according to Sandra Reuben, county librarian.

With the assessment fees, Reuben said, all 57 branches in the unincorporated areas and the 16 cities that opted into the assessment district will be kept open and their hours restored to a six- or seven-day-a-week schedule.

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Facilities in the cities that rejected the assessment district plan must suffer the reduced hours and in the future could face closures, Reuben said.

Library Support

Fifty-two cities have county libraries within their boundaries, but only 16 voted to participate in the new property assessment program that will generate money for libraries. They are:

* Agoura Hills

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* Carson

* Cudahy

* Culver City

* Duarte

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* El Monte

* Huntington Park

* La Canada Flintridge

* Lakewood

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* Lancaster

* Lomita

* Lynwood

* Malibu

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* Maywood

* Santa Clarita

* West Hollywood


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