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Our View: Rethink the way we run the library

Posted: December 2, 2010 10:23 p.m.
Updated: December 3, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

As College of the Canyons Chancellor Dianne Van Hook noted at the groundbreaking of her library expansion project last month, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.”

It’s a popular quotation, and Van Hook wielded it in a discussion of form following function — the need to design a library to fit with the current needs of modern college students.

The same rule applies to function following financing — you can’t provide more library service than you’ve got money to pay for.

The Los Angeles County Public Library system could take a cue from its counterparts at COC. Maybe its managers should sign up for COC business classes.

The county library system is in crisis. It can no longer sustain itself. It’s bleeding red ink to the tune of $22 million per year — roughly 20 percent of its total budget.

It can’t keep doing what it’s always done.

Yet that is exactly what County Librarian Margaret Todd wants the county Board of Supervisors to allow her to do. On Tuesday, she asked the board to place a measure on the county ballot to raise the special library tax and expand it to every city and unincorporated area that uses the county library system.

It wouldn’t apply to taxpayers in the city of Santa Clarita because the city is withdrawing from the county system July 1.

It would apply, however, to the SCV’s unincorporated residents who already pay approximately $2 million annually in library taxes, most of which they never see because it goes to other parts of the county.

Thankfully, the supervisors took no action Tuesday. Our own supervisor, Michael D. Antonovich, doesn’t believe throwing more money at the problem is the solution.

“Every department wants more revenue, but every department must live within its means,” Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell said. “That’s a universal mandate.”

He’s right, and Todd acknowledged that responsibility in her report.

“Unlike other county departments, the public library must stand on its own,” Todd said. It’s a separate system, and it can’t sweep its costs under some other department’s rug.

How did it get to be so bad? Is it the recession? Why didn’t anybody see it coming?

We’ll take those questions in reverse order.

People did see it coming. People who follow local government finances closely saw it coming. Councilwoman Marsha McLean, who serves on the county library commission, saw it coming and warned people that “cracks” were forming in the county library system.

She nearly got laughed out of the room by people who don’t follow local government finances closely — people who only know that the library has always been there when they’ve needed it.

Turns out, McLean was being kind when she called them “cracks.” They aren’t cracks. They’re a gaping, $22 million-a-year holes for which there can be no fix.

No fix, that is, as long as the system operates the way it has always operated with the money it has always had.

As Todd notes in her report, “even prior to the economic downturn, (we knew that) the public library would not have sufficient revenue to meet the demand for service over the next 10 years.”

It wasn’t the Great Recession. True, the biggest source of revenue for the library system is property taxes, and property taxes have fallen dramatically over the past three years.

But even if property taxes had continued to rise at 7 percent annually as they did during the real estate boom, the library system still would have run annual deficits, Todd reported.

The recession didn’t cause the problem. Rather, the real estate boom that preceded it allowed the politicians to ignore the problem and postpone addressing it — and made it invisible to many library patrons who don’t follow local government finances closely.

What did cause it?

The system. It’s a “structural” deficit — meaning the way the system is currently structured, its going to run a deficit.

Despite the Band-Aid fixes Todd has implemented in recent years — a curtailment of spending for new books and materials, cutbacks to service hours and programs, a 30-percent reduction in part-time staff hours — she still faces a 5-percent annual increase in operating costs, she said.

Why? Even after cutting things she can cut, Todd still must pay the cost-of-living increases in salary, health care and other employee benefits as mandated in the union contracts.

“Health care charges for temporary employees, for example, increased 561 percent in four years and were fully absorbed by the department,” Todd reports. Yes, she said 561 percent.

How do you deal with a structural deficit? There are only two options.

Door No. 1: The supervisors or the voters throw more and more money at it — at least 5 percent more every year — so you can maintain the structure and keep doing what you’ve always done.

Or you can take door No. 2 and restructure the system.

Todd gives this option exactly one curt paragraph in her report to the supervisors. Here it is in full:

“The only alternative to changing the special tax revenue structure is redesign of the public library’s service model. This model could potentially involve instituting a different approach to facilities planning, service hours and virtual programs and services. The Library Commission strongly opposes that model because it would have a significant impact on service delivery.”

The answer is staring Todd in the face and she is rejecting it. Redesign the service model and institute a different approach.

That’s exactly what the city of Santa Clarita is doing — and Todd’s system is the reason it’s doing it. The city knows that if it stays in the county system, Santa Clarita will continue to throw good money after bad, while watching its libraries crumble.

Of course Todd wouldn’t agree to increase services in Santa Clarita even though the city was building a new and bigger library out of its own taxpayers’ pocket, as we’ve reported. She can’t even maintain what she’s got with the money she’s got.

The county library system was formed in 1913. It’s the only system lifelong Santa Clarita residents have known. It’s understandably difficult for some residents to believe the city when it promises more service at lower cost.

But the city is able to do that because of the model it’s using: a public-private partnership where the city maintains governmental oversight and brings in a skilled private operator with an entirely different operating structure.

For starters, the city’s operator isn’t bound by union contracts that call for annual salary, wage and benefit increases regardless of how much tax money is coming in.

If Todd can scrap her current system and implement that type of public-private structure at the county level, great. If not, she needs to hand the keys to someone who will.

Either way, Todd and her library commission need to go back to the drawing board and plan something entirely different so the people of Los Angeles County don’t end up getting nothing.

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