Steinbeck's Town to Slash $8 million & Close Libraries

Reply Sat 20 Nov, 2004 10:09 am
Beleaguered Salinas plans to close its libraries
Steinbeck's town, in budget crisis, to slash $8 million

Maria Alicia Gaura, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Salinas -- The life-size statue of author John Steinbeck that stands in front of this city's main library wears an exasperated expression, and no wonder.

Two children run past a statue of novelist John Steinbeck on the front lawn of the Salinas Main Library, which may soon be closed. Chronicle photo by Kim Komenich

This agricultural city of 150,000 is so broke that city officials plan to close all three of its libraries in January -- an act that surely would try the patience of its most famous literary son.

It would also make Salinas the biggest city west of the Mississippi, and possibly in the United States, with no public library.

Not that Salinas' 112-year-old library system has been flourishing in recent years. This fast-growing city and its youthful population had only a main library and two small branches to begin with. And hours were slashed last year to reduce costs.

But city voters delivered the coup de grace Nov. 2 when they turned down two tax measures designed to keep city services afloat. The fate of a third tax measure is still unclear because of a very close vote and thousands of still-uncounted provisional ballots.

Without significant new funding on the horizon, city officials are intent on slashing $8 million in spending, including the entire $3 million annual budget for the library system.

"People didn't believe this would be a consequence," said Jan Neal, administrative manager for the libraries. "They read about it, and they heard about it, but they didn't believe it.

"And now what I hear all day long is people walking in and saying, 'The libraries aren't going to close, are they?' " Neal said.

Housed in a 1950s-vintage cinderblock building, the John Steinbeck main library is modest but quiet, comfortable and meticulously kept. On a weekday afternoon, as a school up the street let out, kids with backpacks streamed in to do their homework and sign up for computer time.

High school teacher Jean Worthington fumed about the election results as she searched the shelves for classroom materials.

"This is a safe place for them to be and to do their homework," Worthington said. "A lot of them don't have that at home.

"Who knows what (the voters) were thinking?" Worthington said. "Who knows if anybody even cares?"

Some voters, however, say they knew exactly what they were doing.

Carla Lane, browsing the stacks with her two young daughters, said that if the libraries have to close, that's too bad.

"We come here all the time, my kids love it, and I'm a big reader myself, " said Lane, picking out an armload from the new-fiction shelf. "But I'm not sure the money is always being spent wisely.

"I can't believe that everything has been exhausted," Lane said. "If they have to close, so be it. Maybe they can just open one day a week."

The Salinas libraries' plight was the talk of the California Library Association's annual meeting in San Jose last weekend, and librarians from around the country are watching developments here with a horrified fascination.

"This is just a tragedy for the people of Salinas," said Maurice Freedman, past president of the American Library Association and current director of the library system in Westchester County, N.Y. "This is not a well-heeled suburban community where people have computers and Internet access at home. A lot of the working people are totally dependent on the public library system to meet their information needs, search for jobs and obtain literacy services."

Salinas' financial problems have been building for years, a combination of rapid residential growth, falling sales tax revenue, 10 years of state raids totaling about $32 million and rising health care costs for workers.

Last year, the city cut 52 jobs and $8 million in spending, eliminating crossing guards, paramedic services, graffiti abatement, most recreation programs and many other services.

Still faced with a $9.2 million shortfall, the City Council voted in September to cut another 71 jobs and $7 million, including the money for all library services, all but one recreation center, 10 unfilled police positions and one firefighter -- adding up to 20 percent of the city staff.

The second round of layoffs and closings could have been rescinded had the three Nov. 2 ballot measures been approved.

One, a half-cent rise in the city's sales tax, would have raised $8 million to $10 million per year. It lost by 1,200 votes.

A second, a rise in utility rates for some businesses, lost by nearly 2- to-1. A measure to increase business license fees is ahead by a few hundred votes. If it is finally approved, the city will have to cut only another $1 million this month instead of $2.2 million.

"My feeling is that this city is dying," said Greg Meyer, a 25-year city maintenance worker who was given a layoff notice in September and will be unemployed in January. "We are opening the gates to urban blight and increased crime. Taking the libraries out of service is like a trumpet blast heralding the coming of our fall.

"When we woke up on Nov. 3 and saw how the citizens of this city had voted, my wife turned to me and said, 'It's time to get out of this place,' " Meyer said.

City officials are at a loss to explain why the tax measures failed to win a majority vote, especially the utility tax hike, which would have affected only the 61 biggest businesses in Salinas and was put on the ballot by the business community.

"The utility tax losing was just stupid," said Dennis Donohue, president of European Vegetable Specialties and co-creator of the measure. "The businesses basically said that the city has a problem and we'd like to throw in some money. And more than 10,000 voters told us 'no.' "

Though city residents howled when crossing guards, paramedic services and library hours were cut, in March they rejected a parcel tax aimed at restoring the paramedics.

And while some officials believe that voters were confused by the Nov. 2 ballot measures, many voters simply didn't believe the city was broke and didn't want to pay higher taxes.

At a packed City Council meeting Tuesday, library supporters asked if an emergency fund-raising drive could keep the libraries open until another tax measure could be placed on the ballot.

The council agreed to have the library commission hold public hearings over the next few weeks to take suggestions. But Mayor Anna Caballero emphasized that the crisis is not a one-time event: The libraries need $3 million a year to stay open, and "there's no way you can sell enough cupcakes and get enough donations to fill that gap."

While disappointed that the libraries may close, one of the city's bigger packers and growers, Dennis Donohue, thinks a shutdown could have a silver lining.

"We needed $3 million to run a library that was on the decline," Donohue said. "We didn't set up the possibility of creating a great library system. Maybe we really need $5 million. Maybe the public needs a wake-up call. Maybe Salinas needs a little civics lesson."
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Reply Sat 20 Nov, 2004 10:39 am
My town of Tomball solved the library crisis by moving it to the junior college campus. I question the wisdom of this because I can't see the average person going there as freely as they would to the older location.
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