A special advisory panel plans to ask the Ventura City Council to embrace a far-reaching rescue package for the city's cash-starved libraries that includes imposing a property tax and closing two branches.
Members of the Library Advisory Board suggest that the city could use the $1.2 million annually raised from a proposed $35 special property tax toward construction of a new library in a central location.
But before the city can build a new facility, advisory board members plan to propose shutting down the Avenue Library and downtown's Foster Library and consolidating services at the Wright Library near Ventura College.
"My ultimate goal would be to have one really beautiful, great library in this town, and we all need to get behind this concept," said board member Diane Neveu, owner of the Book Mall of Ventura. "I don't like the idea of closing any libraries, but I do want to see the libraries accessible. At this point, we can't seem to afford to keep all three open a reasonable amount of hours."
The advisory board fashioned its bailout plan after Measure L, a library ballot initiative that proposed to increase homeowners' taxes by $35 a year.
Although the measure failed to win the needed two-thirds vote in November, it was supported by a majority of the city's electorate. And, board member Keith Burns said 53% support qualifies as a mandate for the council to establish a special benefits assessment district to levy a property tax.
"If they will take the heat on [raising taxes], then we will have an actual finished and workable plan to keep libraries open and increase hours," said Burns, owner of Books on Main.
Burns said that unlike Measure L, the proposed assessment would have a finite life of three to five years and would not include a cost-of-living adjustment. The advisory board plans to present its recommendations at the City Council's Jan. 15 meeting.
It would take at least four of the seven council members to adopt a new assessment district. Although council members said Thursday they need more information before passing judgment on such a tax, a majority said they opposed the idea in concept.
"I think that the public has spoken loud and clear that they do not want another tax," said Councilman Jim Friedman, referring to the fact that Measure L fell short of the required two-thirds majority of the vote. "I think we need to find another way."
Appointed by the City Council, the seven-member Library Advisory Board gives advice to city leaders on library issues. Its recommendations are not binding. And only the county's Library Services Agency which operates Ventura's three libraries can decide to close branches.
Yet Dixie Adeniran, director of the county library agency, said shutting two of Ventura's libraries may be the only way to preserve quality library service in Ventura.
"As regrettable as it is, I think it is a more efficient use of available resources," Adeniran said.
Since 1992, cuts in state funding to local governments have devastated the county library agency. And in the three-year period, the annual operating budget for Ventura's three libraries has dropped from about $3 million to $1.8 million.
Since 1993, librarians have been shuttling back and forth between Ventura's two main branches, reporting to work at either the Foster or Wright branch every other day of the week.
The city's third branch, the Avenue Library, maintains a skeletal, 19-hour-per-week schedule. Library officials fear they already may have to shut down the storefront facility in July because of a shortage of dollars.
Collectively, Ventura's three branches offer 72 hours of library service per week, only 11 hours more than the Foster Library alone provided in 1992 before the cutbacks.
"We have a lot of people tell us they can't keep the schedules straight and we don't blame them," said Alan Langville, community libraries division manager with the county library agency. "We were joking that no one in the library agency knows the hours by heart, either."
Although the Foster branch in Ventura serves as the reference library for county residents, library officials and advisory board members said it makes more sense to consolidate library services at the Wright Library.
Last year, patrons checked out 224,000 books at the Wright Library, located at Day and Telegraph roads, more than twice the circulation of the Foster branch.
Wright was built in the mid-1960s, whereas a portion of Foster was constructed in 1921. The county's Public Works Agency said it would be cheaper to build a new facility than to renovate Foster to make it earthquake safe and accessible for disabled patrons.
The advisory board's recommendations coincide with a decision by backers of Measure L to seek community suggestions on library service through town meetings and surveys. Board members say they will have a tough time persuading city leaders to adopt their recommendations, but that they need to help the council find a way to salvage library service.
"It is time to take some kind of active hand in what is happening to our library system," Neveu said.