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Needed: Stable Funding for Libraries

A library that buys no new books will before long cease to be a functioning library at all. The Los Angeles County public library system--87 branches serving 3.3 million users--has been in imminent danger of just this kind of death for the last two years. The transfer of property tax revenue from the county to the state has taken a $30-million bite from the library’s annual budget and brought book buying to a virtual halt.

When a community proposes specific funding for its own, local library, public support is often remarkably strong. But rallying support for a library system scattered over 3,000 square miles is more difficult. Still, a method seemed to have been found until Tuesday, when a snag developed. The method was the creation last August--by a 3-2 vote of the county supervisors--of a community facilities district for libraries. The library district would add $28.50 per year to the property tax bill for a single-family residence, $21.38 for an apartment.

Twenty-eight libraries in unincorporated parts of the county were to be automatically included in the district. City councils in 16 cities voted to join the district, adding 21 additional libraries. Thirty-eight libraries in cities whose councils chose not to participate were left without relief. Still, for the 49 libraries, a new, stable source of library funding seemed to be in hand.

Then, Tuesday, Supervisor Gloria Molina, the swing vote on this issue, chose to withhold her final approval. If a year-end budget surplus were to turn up and other pressing needs did not swallow it whole, Molina suggested, the library tax could be postponed or reduced. On Thursday, Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed closed the county’s 1993-94 books, and according to her there is no surplus. But Molina disagrees, and so does Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Balancing the $14-billion books is Reed’s job, but she concedes that the numbers are subject to interpretation. Numbers always are.

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Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. By law, property tax bills must reach property owners by Nov. 1. According to Treasurer/Tax Collector Larry Monteilh, the logistics of meeting that deadline permit ratifying the library district as drafted or dropping it entirely but not tinkering with the amount of the assessment.

With the county facing the burden of increasing demands for stepped-up law enforcement and prosecution, the budget surplus, if there is one, cannot buy more than a small, one-time reduction in the library tax. This gain must be weighed against the loss of new, stable funding for half the libraries in the county system. If the new library district goes down in flames, the 16 cities that wanted to join it (four of those 16 even have placed it on the November ballot, at considerable cost) will feel misled. So will voters who attended about 190 community meetings on the measure. The hour is late, but we urge Molina to treat this good deal as a done deal and ratify her earlier vote.


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