Thursday, December 2, 2004
Salinas, John Steinbeck’s birthplace: It’s the setting of many of his works, and it’s a city where everything from restaurants to beauty salons memorializes him. Next year, however, the city will earn name recognition for a very different reason. Come January, the National Steinbeck Center will continue to host speakers and exhibits, and Sweet Thursdays will still cut and color coifs in Oldtown. But the city’s downtown library, the one that is named after Steinbeck, with a life-size statue of the author standing outside, under a ginkgo tree, will close. So will two others, El Gabilan Library, located on North Main Street, and Cesar Chavez Library on Salinas’ Eastside.
Salinas will then hold the dubious distinction of being the only good-sized city in California—and, according to some estimates, the biggest city in the US—without a library.
The loss will be felt throughout the population. Thousands of kids will lose access to free reading groups and homework centers; adults will lose literacy programs, computer labs, and a warm, well-lit place to read, or to borrow a book, movie or music.
The cuts don’t stop with the city’s three libraries. Four recreation centers will also close their doors for good, and the city will delay hiring 10 more police officers. Park and facility maintenance will be reduced.
On Sept. 21, six of seven members of the City Council approved the cuts, which represent a $7 million savings. Salinas was staring at a $9.2 million budget shortfall. This represented only a first step in closing the huge gap for the next fiscal year. The councilmembers know they will probably be forced to reduce even more city services and cut additional jobs.
As they considered their options, they decided there was only one way out of this mess.
At the Sept. 21 meeting, the councilmembers reminded the public that three tax measures, dubbed A, B and C, would close the budget gap and keep libraries open. Measure A levied a half-cent sales tax increase. Measure B instituted a utility tax on large businesses. Measure C raised the business-license fee rate, and taxed agriculture and manufacturers—two groups that currently do not pay the fee. Together they would bring in $9.5 million to $12 million annually.
Voters were given a clear choice, spelled out in warnings from the mayor, councilmembers and other civic leaders: Approve the three tax increases or lose libraries and the like. It wasn’t an empty threat.
Voters rejected A and B, and only narrowly approved C. And now three libraries in Steinbeck Country will close.
On Nov. 16, two weeks after Election Day, the City Council
voted to form a special library committee to deal with the
library closures, and to hold off making any additional budget
cuts until Dec. 14. The committee is a last-ditch effort and
it may yield nothing. But councilmembers say they don’t want
to give up just yet.
— — — —
“Right now, we’ve closed our libraries,” says Councilwoman Jyl Lutes. “That’s done. So what do we do at this point? We’ll be incredibly lucky to keep one open a few hours each day.”
Lutes is a fifth grade teacher. She shakes her head as she talks about classroom reading circles and the sad truth that soon she may not be able to tell her students, “Go to the library and check it out.”
“Here are these 11-year-olds, grappling with character motivation and what’s the meaning of this? What’s this passage saying? I see my students so turned on to reading. It’s such a dichotomy on one hand to be promoting reading and on the other hand closing libraries.”
Lutes, along with councilmembers Maria Giuriato and Gloria De La Rosa, sits on the special library committee, which will meet again on Dec. 8 before making its recommendations to the full council.
“And it may be nothing,” Lutes says. “We may come back and say we tried. If the money’s not there, the money’s not there.”
Giuriato, who also works as a manager for the county’s Department of Social Services, takes a different approach. She says closing the city’s libraries is simply not an option.
“One was named after Cesar Chavez, who was such an advocate for books and reading,” she says. “What a shame to shut down a library that recognizes him. And to shut down a library that recognizes John Steinbeck.
“I’m the optimist,” Giuriato says, holding out hope that the County government will come forward to help. “I’ve worked for the county for 25 years.” Giuriato says she’s talked to County CAO Sally Reed, Supervisor Lou Calcagno and County Librarian Bob McElroy about the possibility of borrowing money from the County, or merging with the Monterey County Free Library system to offer some minimal services.
But still the money problem would remain.
“The trouble with us taking over the services is the same trouble the city’s facing—some type of revenue flow to pay library services,” McElroy says.
The County’s system provides library service in smaller cities, and in the unincorporated parts of the county. Residents pay taxes for these services.
Cities that provide their own library services—Salinas, Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove—don’t pay into this special district.
“We couldn’t come in and provide Salinas with library services, without taking away services from the people who are paying for them.”
Meanwhile, McElroy says, he’s preparing a “proposal for services,” per the City Council’s request.
“The City could provide a lower level of service. We could
potentially put our bookmobiles in the city. But there still
hangs the strong possibility that the city may shut down
library service. If they do it, I hope they recognize the
drastic nature of that step. Libraries are not something you
can turn on and off like a water facet.”
— — — —
The night before the special library committee held its first meeting, a 50-year-old man was wounded in a drive-by shooting at his home, around 10:50pm on Nov. 18. The shooting happened in Maria Giuriato’s neighborhood—in North West Salinas, not a usual hotbed of gang violence.
“The reality is, unfortunately we’re a community that needs a strong police intervention,” Giuriato said, at the Nov. 19 meeting in City Hall.
“A few months ago we were introduced to 20 new officers,” Lutes added. “Five of them are gone. They’ve left because our salaries just can’t keep them here. There’s too much violence and our salaries are not competitive.”
The two were responding to a woman who suggested that the city cut money from the police department rather than close libraries. The fact is that it takes money to keep cops on the streets and library doors open, and Salinas is broke.
Two strategies emerged at the special library committee meeting. One looks at the long-term, and requires shutting all three facilities for the time being, putting another tax measure on a special ballot as soon as April, and trusting that voters don’t really want to lose libraries.
Or the committee may recommend the councilmembers look for a way to run a “skeletal library service,” keeping one building open a few hours a week.
City Library Director Julia Orozco, who is retiring this year, told the committee that El Gabilan Library and its neighboring lot could be sold. Finance officials estimate the land is worth “in excess of $1 million.” That money could be funneled into the two surviving facilities.
Before the City decides how to go about saving the libraries, it needs to determine what residents expect and need from the services, Orozco said.
“For some people, it’s a safe haven; for others, it’s a door to learning; for others, it’s computers,” she explained. “Everyone has a different idea of what a library is.”
If doors do close, the City must commit its resources to reopening them, she said: “We need to decide, yes, we’re going to resurrect library services in this community.”
If not, then there are several details to attend to.
“Do we store material in the buildings?” she asked. “Do we board up the windows? Well, Cesar Chavez has a lot of windows. And if we board them up you know what will happen.”
If only one library can be saved, which one gets to keep its doors open?
Cesar Chavez may be the emotional favorite. Before the committee had met, local citizen activist MacGregor Eddy had already begun a campaign to Save the Cesar Chavez Library. It’s located in North East Salinas, near the city’s poorest and youngest neighborhoods. Many residents expect to see a direct correlation between the library closing and more crime on the streets, so the argument goes that keeping Cesar Chavez open will do the most good for the community.
On the other hand, John Steinbeck Library has the famous author’s name, and it’s located in the city center. According to Lauren Cercone of the group Friends of the Salinas Public Library, “usage rates at Steinbeck far outstrip the other two.”
But then there’s the issue of accountability. Salinas officials told residents that if A, B and C failed, then libraries would close. Cercone coordinated the A-B-C campaign. She says voters deserve what they get.
“The only thing that is going to keep library service alive for the future,” she said, “Is to close them and regroup. And that is another ballot measure. People do not believe the libraries will close.”
It’s the history of elections. Voters call it “blackmail” and “extortion.” Cities say “approve this tax measure or else services will end.”
Cercone points to Measure Q, the County’s failed sales tax measure to bail out Natividad Medical Center. Voters didn’t approve the tax and the hospital didn’t shut down—although it did close some of its clinics.
And then there was Measure P, a failed parcel tax to pay for Salinas paramedics. “People say, ‘the paramedics are still here,’” Cercone said. (However, they most likely won’t be come June, when their contract runs out.)
Voters are accustomed to watching measures fail with no consequences.
“There will not be a shred of credibility left for the city if those libraries don’t close,” Cercone said, at the committee meeting. “You will never get a stream of revenue passed again.”
She wants the Council to put a tax on a special ballot this spring to raise enough money to reopen all three buildings and sustain library services citywide.
“I would like people to resist the emotional appeal. This is not a TV show. Oprah’s not going to sweep in and write a check. We have to look to ourselves to do it. We need to work towards a long term solution, but to do it with these crazy patches and band aids…”
Social worker Wren Bradley argued the other side. Why should kids be punished for the voting population’s mistakes?
“We need to try to capture at least the salvation of one of the libraries in the short term,” she said. “I’m not willing to shortchange a child’s future. I understand the argument: it’s for the greater good.”
She understands it, but she doesn’t buy it.
— — — —
City officials call it “the perfect storm.” It’s become an overused cliché, but it works to describe the dire combination of state and local financial troubles that will cause Salinas’ libraries to shut their doors.
Cities make money from various taxes: on property, retail sales, utility users, transient occupancy and business licenses. This revenue is filtered through the state and the county, simply because that’s the way it’s done. And for the past 10 years, both the county and the state have been taking local revenue away from Salinas.
City Manager Dave Mora says citizens don’t realize that their taxes do not go to fund city services.
“People say, ‘Hey, Dave, I pay a lot of money in property taxes. Why can’t you run the city?’ Of $100 in property tax paid by anyone in Salinas, some $12 to $15 actually goes to the city. If someone pays $2,000 in property tax, Salinas gets about $300. When I talk to local residents, all I can say is, ‘you are absolutely right. If we have all of your property tax money, we could run the city.’”
It’s a new problem more than ten years in the making. In 1992, Sacramento lawmakers shifted local property tax money away from cities and counties, and into state coffers to fund education. They did this by finding a loophole in property tax law to create the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund, or ERAF.
This has cost Salinas about $3 million every year, since 1992.
With the rise of the dotcoms, when the economy surged in the mid and late ‘90s, Sacramento had enough money in its pocketbook. The recession ended, but the state didn’t give any ERAF money back to the cities.
Instead, they salted the wound. In the late ‘90s, because Sacramento was flush with cash, state legislators cut the Vehicle License Fee, an important source of funding for local governments. This tax cut was tremendously popular with voters, but it didn’t sit so well with cities and counties.
Salinas lost $2.6 million in vehicle license fees in fiscal year 2003-04. Sacramento has yet to pay the city back.
Then, to make matters worse, the dotcom bubble burst and the state economy went into a tailspin. The local economy is still down. Sales tax revenues have declined over the last two years. In ’01-’02, Salinas made $21.2 million in sales tax revenue, compared to $20.7 million this year.
“That isn’t going to affect every community,” Mora says, “but in Salinas, our primary revenue is retail tax.”
In addition to the state raids on city coffers and losses in sales tax revenue, Salinas has also suffered at the hand of a cash-strapped County government.
To make up for the County’s own projected deficit, supervisors decided to charge Salinas more for services. Last year, they voted to raise fees for 911 emergency calls and to charge the city more to book criminals. These together cost Salinas $1.4 million.
Mora calls this “misbehavior” on the part of the County. “You didn’t see this happening in other counties,” he says.
And finally, skyrocketing California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and health care costs have cost the city almost $8.1 million over a two-year period. These are due to the stock market decline, and have hurt all local governments, as well as the state.
Combine the city’s underlying financial situation with its
demographics, and it spells deep trouble—the kind of problems
that moneymen like Mora call “structural.”
— — — —
“Look at our demographics,” Mora says. As everybody knows, agriculture and tourism fuel the two major economic engines in Monterey County. “Neither are well paying, and the majority of those employees live in Salinas. This is a lower income community with a higher, legitimate need.”
According to the 2002 Census, Salinas’ median age is 28.5, and 10 percent of the population is under 5 years old. Almost 13 percent of families and 17 percent of individuals live below the poverty level.
That means, Salinas needs social services, libraries, parks, and rec centers more than the rest of the County, and all of the above cost the city money.
“There’s more need here than in other communities,” Mora says. Salinas has less money to fulfill those needs—about $400 per resident, compared to Monterey’s $1,000.
“We have always had a low tax base and a high demand,” Mora says. “In today’s environment, the only way you’re going to be able to change that is through local taxes.”
In April 2003, Mora and the city’s financial advisors first warned councilmembers about the major financial problems looming on the horizon.
Luckily, the city had saved about $10 million in its reserve fund.
But it still had to trim money from its General Fund, reducing the ‘03-‘04 budget by about $2.5 million.
A second round of cuts came in January, totaling $2.9 million.
The third hit—another $2.9 reduction—happened in June, in response to the state taking even more money from the city.
“The perfect storm was more than anybody could have anticipated.” Mora says.
The result was that after cutting 52 full-time jobs and $8.3 million from this year’s budget, Salinas still found itself looking at a fiscal year 2005-’06 budget that was $9.2 million in the red.
On Sept. 21, the council approved almost $7 million in cuts.
Measures A, B and C were supposed to ensure those
reductions didn’t have to happen.
— — — —
“Libraries are a symbol of democracy,” says Jan Neal, administrative manager at the John Steinbeck Library. “Where else can you find an open building where anyone can walk into it and be treated equally, stay as long as you like, and enjoy all of the collection? It represents the heart of what we’re talking about when we talk about being a democracy.
“You can come in and get information. You can get enough information that it turns into knowledge. Or you can just come in and enjoy a peaceful space.”
A recent study ranks illiteracy as the number-one most pressing social issue affecting our children’s future. The survey by financial services firm TD Waterhouse also found that 51 percent of the population considers reading as the most important skill in a child’s development. The leading cause of illiteracy, according to the US Department of Education, is access to books. The department says 61 percent of low-income families have no books in their homes for kids.
One research librarian, famously quoted in the Denver Post, says some states are using the numbers of non-reading third-graders to project their future prison population.
Salinas knows something about both problems. It’s got the highest densities in the county, the youngest, poorest residents, and high rates of illiteracy and violence.
On the other hand, its the only city in the county that builds its state-mandated “fair share” of affordable housing, and its leaders are currently looking for additional incentives and programs to require that as much as 40 perccent of the homes in new developments be affordable. While the County may pay lip service to New-Urbanist ideals, Salinas’ General Plan is the real thing. Additionally—ironically—the city requires every new development to pay a library impact fee so the future neighborhoods won’t be without library services.
And its council is the most progressive, Democratic governing body in the county.
At the recent Partners for Peace summit, hosted by the nonprofit run by Mayor Anna Caballero, keynote speaker and author Riane Eisler talked about the tragedy of gang violence in Salinas, and about how to build “cultures of caring.” She described the relationship between low crime rate and the percentage of women who hold elected office. Finland, Sweden and Norway place a greater emphasis on traditionally female roles and jobs, Eisler explained, like education, child and elder care, and other social services.
Her description sounded like the Salinas City Council: majority women who, in their day jobs, work as teachers, labor organizers, social service providers, and health care providers.
Salinas should look like one of these non-violent, well-schooled nations. But it doesn’t. It takes more than good intentions and ideas.
“It’s so frustrating,” Lutes says. “The thinking is light years ahead here in Salinas.”
But in Salinas, there’s no money to back up those