Dr. Carmen Finley, a retired research scientist and genealogist, still remembers the "Juvenile Hall" of the Santa Rosa public library. During the 1930s, her mother worked at a shop near the library, dropping her off every day before work.
"I have such fond memories," Finley says, recalling that the children's librarian "taught me how to write my name before I entered school so that I could get a library card."
Even though the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression, Finley recalls, Santa Rosa kept its libraries open on Mondays—and it did so for 80 more years.
But since Aug. 1, 2011, Sonoma County's 200,000 library cardholders have been deprived of the use of 11 local libraries on Mondays and evenings. A 25 percent cutback in hours, first instituted to save just $310,000, has left long lines at libraries—where programs, computer use and circulation has steadily risen in Sonoma County for the past decade. Children, parents, seniors and those too poor to afford computers have been hit hardest by this failure to keep the doors open on Mondays for the first time in the public library's 108-year history.
And the end of the county's library funding crisis is nowhere in sight. Last week, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a robust $1.3 billion budget in record time. The county's probation department, with a budget four times as large as the library's, received a $2.7 million boost. Despite a continual drop in violent crime, the sheriff's department's increase was $9 million, including a last-minute addition from the county's contingency fund of $240,000 to retain a federal marijuana-eradication officer.
Estimates of how much it would cost to restore library hours range wildly, from about $500,000 to reopen with extra staff to an unspecified number in excess of $2 million—a figure the library's director Sandra Cooper insists it would take to "adequately" fund those days and restore staffing levels during other hours.
Yet appeals to county supervisors to direct emergency funding for restoring library hours have fallen upon deaf ears. As a result, for at least one more year, and possibly far longer, Sonoma County libraries will remain closed on Mondays and evenings.
The story of how Sonoma County, the 12th wealthiest of California's 58 counties, cannot remedy an unprecedented cutback in library hours offers a timely lesson about much of what is wrong with modern government.
A FUNDING SHORTFALL
As per a 1975 joint powers agreement (JPA) between the county and its major cities, Sonoma County libraries are funded by a dedicated fraction of a percent of property taxes. The JPA agreement establishes an independent county library agency; seven unpaid library commissioners have the power to manage the budget, draw from reserves accumulated during flush years and, at least on paper, oversee the library director.
The existing JPA also assures that the library will provide the same baseline of services, including hours, as existed in 1975, when the main libraries consolidated into the agreement stayed open at least 52 hours a week. The JPA provides the county with the authority to "annually levy" taxes to sustain the libraries, the ability to augment library budgets, and nominal oversight to make sure funds do not disappear.
In 1975, nobody foresaw Proposition 13 limiting property tax increases, or the multibillion-dollar drop in assessments that hit Sonoma County between 2007 and 2010. In April 2010, after receiving notice that its annual budget would fall from about $16.5 million to $15.9 million, the library revealed its plan to decrease hours to make up the shortfall.
Public reaction was immediate. Within weeks, Sebastopol mayor Guy Wilson wrote to library director Sandra Cooper, urging the commission to not cut hours, but that if it did, to allow the local Friends of the Library group to raise dedicated funds for keeping the local branch open. Meanwhile, Dena Bliss and a small group of supporters formed Save Our Libraries Sonoma County (SOCOSOL) and began circulating a petition urging the commission to retain library hours.
Thousands signed it. They were ignored. The commission decided not to tap any of the $2 million in the "rainy day" fund or delay the hundreds of thousands being spent on new self-serve checkout terminals, and instead cut hours. The closures, which began Aug. 1, 2011, resulted in a savings of $310,000 per year in part-time salaries, as well as about $100,000 a year from reduced janitorial and energy usage.
"Being forced to reduce hours is a symptom of a much bigger problem," explains Cooper.
That problem, Cooper argues, becomes evident when Sonoma County's library operating income per capita of $28.91 (for fiscal year 2010–2011) is compared with operating income per capita for Alameda, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and San Mateo counties. They average well over $50 in spending per capita, with a minimum of $42. Their staffing levels are at least 50 percent higher. In Marin and Napa counties, libraries enjoy more than double the staffing rate per resident as Sonoma County.
MONTY PYTHON'S LIBRARY COMMISSION CIRCUS
The meeting at which the commission voted to cut library hours was attended by many members of the public, who suggested ideas for raising money and avoiding the closings. "None of this was ever talked about by the commissioners," SOCOSOL's Bliss recalls. "And since that time, they have been unwilling to engage in a process to bring back the hours."
Of particular concern to the commission's critics was a decision made at the same June 20 meeting to spend a whopping $500,000 on a temporary relocation of the city of Sonoma's library so that it could be upgraded with state redevelopment funds. The commission selected the social hall of the First Congregational Church—where Sonoma's library commissioner Mary Evelyn Arnold was an officer—as the best site for the temporary library. It paid the church the equivalent of $14,100 per month for eight months' rent, as well as about $400,000 for improvements, many of them permanent, to upgrade the church space.
In contrast, later that year, when Sebastopol's larger library needed a temporary home for its four-month-long renovation, the commission was able to move services to Sebastopol's Community Center—at a cost of just $10,000.
"It should not cost $500,000 for a temporary library in Sonoma and just $10,000 in Sebastopol," observes Bliss. "This is when I went crazy."
Arnold, in response to questions about the cost of the move, noted that she recused herself from the vote to approve the funding for the move to her church. (To this day, Cooper defends the expense, noting that "we probably spent less than we would have on other available spaces.")
Arnold also recently announced that restoring hours was not even on her "top 10" list of spending priorities. "The library has many pressing needs," including increased staffing, technology, pension liabilities and materials, she explains to the Bohemian. "I believe most communities, including Sonoma Valley, have made their peace with Monday closures. It is not a top priority of mine."
Tim May, the current chair of the library commission, explains in an email that he was "seriously ill" during the time of the June 20 hearing. He says that although it would have been legal to use the rainy-day funds to retain hours countywide instead of spending them on Sonoma's temporary library, it would have been a bad idea; capital costs are one-time, he argues, while operating savings from hours recur annually.
Dena Bliss disagrees, echoing commission criticism from county supervisors and, one year ago, a Sonoma County grand jury. The grand jury report found Cooper an "unresponsive" leader, noting that she made arbitrary decisions and even edited the minutes of public testimony at commission meetings to tone down criticism. Cooper defended her actions in a point-by-point rebuttal months later, and survived calls for her resignation from a position that pays $150,000 annually, plus $40,000 in benefits.
The library commission's recent budget discussion revealed just how dysfunctional and inactive a government agency can be. One baffled commissioner asked the group, "What has to happen before we can schedule a strategic plan?" Sometime in the upcoming year, replied another, the commission will start its "information gathering" to "begin the process of planning the strategic planning process."
In other words: Making a plan to make a plan to make a plan.
SUPERVISORS PASS THE BUCK
As Sonoma County supervisors heard complaints about the libraries' reduced hours, they went into action—at a snail's pace. More than 14 months later, Supervisor Mike McGuire called the first meeting of the newly appointed Library Joint Powers Agreement Advisory Review Committee. Since that time, McGuire and his representatives from each of the county's nine largest cities have been meeting to develop an improved JPA. When the committee's recommendations are finalized (McGuire suggests by October), public hearings will be held, and cities will review the proposed revisions. Eventually, they, and the county, will vote for the revisions, and an improved JPA, with some mechanism for increased funding, will result.
The process will take years.
Meanwhile, not one of the county's five supervisors, elected to manage our county's $1.3 billion in spending, believes temporary funds to restore hours should come from the discretionary $381 million general fund budget.
Since the library commission is an independent agency, county supervisors point out, correctly, that they have no legal obligation to augment library funding until a new JPA arrangement can be implemented. But do they have an ethical and professional obligation? This is the question they've been running away from.
Supervisors are the ones who legally appoint five out of seven of the library commissioners. They are the government body named by the "tax levy" clause of the 1975 JPA to "annually levy" sufficient taxes for "the purpose of purchasing property for, establishing and maintaining the county library."
And it's not as if the supervisors are unable to step in and provide money from the general fund to county departments or agencies that technically rely on earmarked funding. For example, they took an extra $8 million from the general fund to add to the tens of millions in revenue that the county already receives in gas taxes for roads and bridges.
As a concerned parent of young children who use the library, I first suggested this to my supervisor, Efren Carrillo, over a month ago. Like three other supervisors, he argued that the county had far more important things to do than temporarily restore library hours.
Last week, Carrillo provided extensive written answers to questions for this story. On the subject of funding an emergency fix for library hours, he replied: "The library is not a county department and the reduction in hours is not related to any reductions in county funding. The county is one member of the library joint powers authority. Any additional government funding to restore hours should be a shared responsibility. Additionally, the library faces major long-term challenges with expenses. Restoring hours for one year would not address those problems. It is more appropriate to think strategically about addressing the long-term challenges than funding a one-year temporary fix."
Carmen Finley disagrees. She cites the "tax levy" clause of the JPA and observes, "It sounds like the board of supervisors does have a direct responsibility to see that the library is adequately funded."
THE SAGA CONTINUES
According to county budget experts, although property tax revenues for the library are expected to rise in the coming year, they will be offset by a reduction of state library dollars that have entirely dried up. The news will get worse when new accounting rules make it necessary to add huge sums to library expenses to account for future pension and healthcare costs. Cooper also believes the staff is being overburdened by increased usage during reduced hours. Adding staff would be her top priority for additional funding.
When asked what would happen were the supervisors simply to direct $400,000 to rehire part-time substitute workers to work on Mondays and evenings, Cooper explains that's not enough. "It would cost $1.7 million just to open again on Mondays, not including adding evening hours," she says. "And I would want to see the package. Would they guarantee the funding for five years, or open the libraries on Mondays for one year then close them again?"
Cooper dismisses such "band-aid" solutions, and hopes the JPA revision process endorses a new countywide parcel tax, dedicated to libraries. Only such increased structural funding, she believes, can restore the system's financial foundation, staffing and hours.
Another change in the JPA seems likely. Individual cities and supporters, like Sebastopol's Guy Wilson, have proposed donating funds to restore their own local branches' hours, but that's not possible: any donations go into the countywide system to benefit all branches, as per the JPA.
Efren Carrillo predicts that the JPA committee "will recommend removing the restriction in the current JPA that prohibits localized funding for expanding hours for a particular branch." But Cooper disagrees that wealthier cities should be allowed to provide longer library hours than poorer ones, like Cloverdale.
Sebastopol city council member Sarah Gurney, a mediator and member of the JPA review committee, is not holding her breath for short-term emergency funding. "To protect our regional public library system, the nine cities and the county need to collaborate," she says. "That means one of us can't just foist the financial responsibility—such as for guaranteeing baseline services and restoring Monday hours—on the other."
As befitting a professional mediator, Gurney feels assured that a common-ground solution will be found. "I have confidence in this committee's work, appreciate the sustained efforts of SOCOSOL, and hear our recent petitioners," she says.
Meanwhile, SOCOSOL wants a new JPA that has library commissioners elected by the public—with the power to fire the director.
"I will stand on the street corner with a tin cup and raise money for the library when I know that the money will be used to restore hours," Dena Bliss says. "But to hand Sandy Cooper more money would be insane. The library needs more money, a transparent budget and a management that can use the money responsibly.
"Right now, it doesn't have any of those things."