Thursday, December 16, 2004
Salinas’ three libraries will close next year as part of painful budget cuts approved by the City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 14.
After listening to two hours of heartfelt pleas from teachers, school kids and book worms, six of the seven members of the council voted—for the second time—to shut down the John Steinbeck, Cesar Chavez and El Gabilan libraries, and committed to asking residents to approve a tax measure to pay for library services in the future—again.
The City also agreed to partner with schools, non-profits or the Monterey County Free Library System to open homework centers throughout Salinas so that kids have a place to study after school while the libraries remain closed. A more specific plan to set up these homework centers will be presented to the Council at its Feb. 1 meeting.
“The reality is we did look at every option,” Councilmember Maria Giuriato said. “We are in a crisis mode in this city. At this point, there is no other alternative before us except to…look at long-term funding.”
Giuriato was one of the three councilmembers who sat on a special committee formed last month, in a last-ditch effort to save library services. After series of meetings, however, the panel “very reluctantly” drafted a list of recommendations—including closing the three libraries, setting up the homework centers and asking voters to approve a tax measure to pay for libraries in the future.
Sergio Sanchez, who represents East Salinas, was the only councilmember to vote against the committee’s recommendations at Tuesday’s meeting. He had also been the lone no vote against the cuts on Sept. 21.
The City Council originally voted in September to cut $7 million from its budget in order to include a huge deficit. At that time, the members approved closing the libraries as well as four recreation centers, and also placing a freeze on the hiring of 10 new police officers. But they postponed finalizing the draconian measures until after the Nov. 2 election.
At that time, they hoped that voters would approve three tax initiatives—dubbed Measures A, B and C—that would bring the city between $9.5 million and $12 million annually. That would have been enough to save city services.
Voters rejected Measure A, a half-cent sales tax increase, and Measure B, a utility tax on big businesses. (Had it passed, the utility tax would have affected only the 61 largest businesses in the city, with no tax money being paid by city residents.) Voters only narrowly approved Measure C, a business license tax. Measure C will pump an additional $1.2 million into the city’s general fund annually.
The three libraries cost Salinas almost $3 million a year to operate.
Despite voters’ defeat of two of the three tax measures, however, the City Council on Tuesday night agreed to bring a new ballot measure to the voters to reopen libraries “as soon as possible.”
“I want to see us do something in the next six months,” Mayor Anna Caballero said.
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“People are always saying children are out future,” an eighth grader named Jackie told the Council on Dec. 14. “Why are you guys taking away everything that makes us have a better future? Why are you cutting our services? It’s not, like, our fault.”
Several other students, including a Harden seventh grader named Alicia Truesdale, gave the council stacks of letters written by their peers.
“Just think of the opportunities you will be taking away from kids who want to learn,” she said. “If you close the libraries students will go to the streets and maybe start hanging out with gangs. How would you feel if you had no place to get a book?”
Later, Councilmember Roberto Ocampo would explain “if you don’t have money, you can’t have a lot of things, like police and libraries.”
And so goes Salinas.
Salinas is a poor city and most of its citizens are young, so they need social services, parks, recreation centers and libraries.
Sadly, it doesn’t have the money to do so.
“The Council has looked at every alternative, looked under every rock to avoid closing libraries,” City Manager Dave Mora told a full house at Tuesday’s meeting. “There isn’t enough revenue per capita to support services in this city.”
Most meeting attendees seemed to realize this fact—with the notable exception of Brett Landon, who regularly campaigns against any tax increase and blasts the city for paying its employees decent wages.
Social worker Wren Bradley, who attended all the library committee meetings, called Landon on his bluff.
“Contrary to the person before me,” she said, motioning to Landon, “The money is not there. When I went to those meetings, I was kicking and screaming and convinced I would find money. It isn’t there.”
Bradley said she even “resorted to writing to Oprah,” hoping a check would appear in the mail.
Oprah didn’t save the day, and Bradley says her union—Local 535—is committed to working on a new tax initiative to reopen Salinas libraries.
Back in September, the city was facing a $9.2 million shortfall, Mora explained. Measure C’s passage brings the gap down to $8 million.
“We still have a deficit of $1 million annually,” Mora told the Council on Tuesday.
He, and Finance Director Tom Kever gave the elected officials two options. They could cut the cops and shut the libraries and recreations centers and save $7 million annually. And, to make up for that remaining $1-million-a-year deficit, they could get an advance of $2.3 million in Vehicle License Fee money from the state.
The downside to this option is that that VLF advance will only balance the budget for two years, so “in 24 months, the city will face an additional reduction of $1 million,” Kever said.
The second choice sounded worse: Do not take the VLF advance and cut an extra $1 million from the budget immediately. The councilmembers chose the former.
“This is the most difficult decision we have had to make,” councilmember Gloria De La Rosa said. “Close libraries and rec centers—do we want to do that? No. But can I pull money out of a hat?”
“If you don’t have the money, there’s no choice,” Caballero said. “I’m outraged. I’m angry. I’m sad. Quite frankly, I’m exhausted.”
But, she added, she’s “hopeful.”
“I’m very hopeful there’s a long-term solution for funding libraries and recreation centers.”
Voters will decide.