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L.A. County libraries in a bind

Los Angeles County’s library system — one of the largest public libraries in the nation — is in financial distress and cannot sustain its level of services over the next decade, according to county library officials.

A proposed solution — increasing property taxes — seems to be getting a tough reception. The Library Commission’s recommendation last week prompted no action by the Board of Supervisors.

Library officials have declined to be specific about what will be eliminated if a new tax isn’t passed. But the size of the deficit — about $22 million a year over the next decade — may mean even deeper cuts into hours of operation and services that include homework help, children’s story time and gang prevention efforts. The current budget is $160 million.

“It would have a significant impact on service delivery,” the Library Commission concluded. The county library system serves 3.7 million people, including the residents of 51 of the 88 cities in L.A. County and most unincorporated communities. With 7.5 million volumes, the county library system boasts the third largest public library collection nationwide, behind only Boston’s and New York’s, according to the American Library Assn.

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Budget woes also have forced deep cuts in Los Angeles city libraries; even the iconic Central Library reduced days of operation from seven to five. A ballot measure in March will ask voters in Los Angeles to supply more money to their library system.

Other cities have had to take more drastic measures. In the city of Ventura, officials closed its most popular branch, the H.P. Wright Library, in November 2009, citing falling property tax revenues. Voters there rejected a ballot measure that would have saved the branch by raising the city’s sales tax by half a cent.

In Los Angeles County, library officials say they have cut costs by renegotiating contracts with book and software vendors and reducing part-time staff. But the financial situation has been hampered by rising costs for books, technology and equipment, as well as higher costs for personnel.

To close an $8-million budget deficit for the current fiscal year, the county library system cut service at about 40 of its branches by one or two days, leaving some libraries open only four days a week.

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The county library system was also dealt a blow earlier this year when the city of Santa Clarita decided to remove its three libraries from county management and hand it to a private company. Santa Clarita officials contend the change, which will take effect in summer, will result in a 19% increase in service hours without increasing taxes.

The county’s problems appear more deeply rooted than the city’s. While L.A.'s city libraries underwent a bond-financed, voter-approved $317-million modernization program in the last two decades to rebuild or renovate its branches, many of the county libraries have changed little since they were built in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Patrick Yang, 35, of Temple City ticked off problems with the Rosemead Library in the San Gabriel Valley, one of the 87 libraries and four bookmobiles in the county system.

“Right now, it’s a big, huge box” — with no partitions between the adult study area and children’s areas, and with noise flowing freely between them, said Yang, who was checking out a stack of children’s books for his 3-year-old daughter, Kylie. Yang said a renovation was badly needed. At noon Saturday, the library, built in 1967, was crowded and noisy.

According to the county, 60 of the county’s 87 libraries need extensive renovations in the next decade.

“The average age of the buildings are approximately 40 years old,” said Yolanda De Ramus, an administrative deputy for the county library system. “Right now we are making it, but we would definitely need to get those [additional] monies … to make sure we bring our libraries to the 21st century.”

The demand is growing, librarians say. Lines form outside the library before it opens, often with adults wanting to check online job listings, said librarian Annette Gade.

And being closed on more days, “we are busier than ever on the days we are opened. It’s packed,” said assistant library administrator Elke Schreiner.

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California’s libraries as a whole became more visited during the recession. According to the California State Library, visits per capita to California libraries jumped 6% between the 2007-08 fiscal year and the 2008-09 fiscal year.

At L.A. County libraries, visits per capita jumped 11% over the same time period.

At the same time, declining contributions from the county’s general fund and falling property values have curtailed tax revenue, according to the Library Commission’s report to the supervisors.

To generate more funds, commissioners are calling for a revamp of the special tax levy that was established in 1997. The tax charges $27.84 per parcel annually on property in most unincorporated areas and in 11 of the 51 cities served by the county library system. The 40 cities that have chosen not to levy the special tax receive fewer days of library service.

Commissioners recommended the special tax rate be increased and expanded to include all areas served. The commissioners said doing so could generate an additional $12 million to $23 million every year over the next decade, money that could be used to close the gap between revenues and expenses.

“We just don’t see the revenues catching up with our ability to provide those services, unless we do have the special tax,” De Ramus said. She said library officials planned to provide a more detailed analysis of a proposed tax to the supervisors.

A consultant hired by the library said a survey had found that two-thirds of voters surveyed would support a special tax, although details of that survey were not provided.

But even some of the library’s most ardent users are wary about more taxes.

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On Saturday, Tammy Lai, 24, was helping her 10-year-old cousin, Steven Nguyen, read aloud from a workbook at the Rosemead Library. She lamented the facility’s closure on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays.

“I think it’s crucial to open on the first and last day of the school week,” Lai said. Without service those days, her cousins “don’t have a chance to get resources and homework help.”

But she was leery about a tax hike, “given the economy.”

In the children’s section, 7-year-old Jinxin Ye was eagerly reading a “Toy Story” book, looked after by her aunt, Joanne Ye, 39. Ye said she wished the library was also open Sundays, because she has only the weekends off.

But she was not enthusiastic about a tax hike, either.

“For a lot of homeowners, it’s hard for them to pay more taxes,” Ye said, before reconsidering. “If everyone paid a little bit more for the library, then yeah, it’s good.”

Children can’t always play at the park, she said: “Sometimes, they need to come to the library.”

ron.lin@latimes.com


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