Leticia Perez used to plan her visits to the library like clockwork.
First, she'd pick up her niece and drive to McDonald's for a quick Happy Meal dinner. Then it was off to the Chapman branch library for an evening of homework and exploration.
But a few years ago, Chapman and the other 26 branches of the county library system began cutting back. Perez's local branch is now open just two days a week, forcing her to use the Garden Grove Regional Library across town.
"We got to the [Chapman] library one day and all the lights were out," she said. "I think it's sad."
Other library patrons feel the same way, having watched helplessly as the system's annual budget dropped by nearly a third over the last four years. More cuts are expected this year.
The future of Orange County's libraries could be sealed in the pages of a much-anticipated study that will probably foreshadow major changes to the 75-year-old system.
The report, scheduled for release in the next few weeks, will focus on who should operate the libraries and how to provide adequate services. Both city and county officials have expressed interest in handing over library service to municipalities, but there is little agreement on specifics.
Some want to break up the system into several regional entities, while others favor creating a countywide joint powers authority for libraries similar to the newly independent county fire authority.
Still other cities are talking about joining forces with such neighboring municipalities as Newport Beach and Santa Ana, which already have their own library systems.
But deciding who controls the branches is only part of the problem.
With the system's financial health progressively worsening because of state cutbacks, leaders must also decide what they want out of their libraries and, more important, how to pay for the desired services.
"Either people are going to have to accept significant reductions in the level of service or they are going have to be willing to deal with the tough questions of financing," said Laguna Niguel City Manager Tim Casey, who helped select the consultant preparing the study.
"The question for the public and policymakers is, what importance do they place on libraries, and what level of service do they want in the future," Casey said.
Library patrons and volunteers said the answers to those questions are obvious.
"To me, the library is really the heart of an educated population," said Frances Williams, a volunteer at the Silverado Canyon branch. "I think the future of any population depends on access to libraries and information."
But improving services requires more funding. Orange County's libraries must make do on a portion of property tax revenue that equates to roughly $14 a year per resident. By contrast, Newport Beach residents contribute more than $51 a year, but have access to one of the state's finest library districts.
Some patrons and officials have suggested a supplemental assessment of $5 to $15 a year to help the county system.
The lingering financial crisis stems from a decision by the state four years ago, when Sacramento was scrambling for revenue to close a state budgetary shortfall, to reduce the percentage of property taxes allocated to the library system and other special districts.
Largely because of the state's action, the system's annual revenue has dropped from $27 million in 1991 to $20 million now. The county bankruptcy aggravated the situation by prompting the Board of Supervisors to eliminate the county's modest subsidy.
Library patrons have felt the cash crunch through reduced operating hours, fewer services and higher fees.
"There's so much more that could be offered," said L.J. Pham, a community college student who visits the Garden Grove Regional Library at least three times a week.
At the nearby West Garden Grove branch, volunteer Carolyn Hall said she worries about how the cutbacks in hours affect children who rely on the library as "a safe place where they can read, relax and look for information."
"I know that patrons feel badly that we are only open two days a week," Hall said. "A lot of parents work, and if we close at 6 p.m., that is maybe when they are just getting started."
In an earlier move to reduce operating costs, the county sold the Leisure World-Seal Beach branch to the retirement community, which now operates it as a private facility. Five other branches targeted for closure were spared, but only after cities and volunteers stepped forward to provide money and staffing support.
County Librarian John M. Adams said the system's budget will probably drop to $19 million this coming year, but that he will try to avoid further reductions in operating hours.
County supervisors have expressed interest in turning the system over to the cities. But officials are still struggling to decide what kind of structure would work best.
A key element of the consultant's report is an examination of various governing ideas, which range from retaining a 27-branch system to allowing cities to run their own libraries.
Under one novel scenario, Irvine officials have talked about forming a library consortium made up of the city, the school district and Irvine Valley College. The idea is one of many that city officials said they are considering.
But other communities have raised concerns about totally dismantling the system, saying a breakup would increase operating costs and provide some cities with better service than others.
"It makes sense to me to create some sort of a regional system because of the economies of scale in terms of buying and distributing books and keeping up to date," said George Tindall, Garden Grove's city manager. "It doesn't make sense to me for every city to run its own library."
Branch libraries are not distributed equally among the cities. Garden Grove, for example, has three branches within its boundaries, while Laguna Hills and Los Alamitos have none.
"Library use does not fall within geopolitical boundaries," said Tindall, adding that residents from around central Orange County visit Garden Grove's large regional library.
Still, community leaders want more local control.
"I think the ideal situation would be if libraries could be locally managed, but linked together in a regional or subregional network," said Costa Mesa City Manager Allan L. Roeder. "The libraries should reflect what the local needs are."
Once the consultant's report is released, a committee of city officials from around the county will study its conclusions and attempt to craft a new governing plan, which would then be submitted to Board of Supervisors.
"This is a basic issue like education," Tindall added. "Every resident has a right to basic services from a library. Hopefully, the study will focus on how to accomplish that."
Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.
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Orange County's 27-branch library system has seen its annual budget drop from $27 million to $20 million during the last four years. Cities want to take control of the county-run system, but it remains unclear exactly what kind of governing structure will emerge. Some options:
* Subregional districts: Break the system into several smaller entities in different parts of the county; cities within each zone would govern their libraries.
* Countywide joint powers authority: Retain the 27-branch system, but transfer control from the county to a governing panel made up of city representatives; the system would be similar to newly independent Orange County Fire Authority.
* City library districts: Have cities that already run their own libraries, such as Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, take over county branches near them.
* Local consortium: Cities, school districts and community colleges in a given community or region team up to provide library service.
Source: Times reports; Researched by SHELBY GRAD / Los Angeles Times