Last Saturday, as Santa Ana winds raised temperatures to record highs, roughly 100 Ocean Beach residents gathered in the hot sun to save their library from Mayor Jerry Sanders' budget ax. They filled the lawn and lined Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, waving signs that declared their undying love for their house of books. They chanted “We are hopin' / to keep the libraries open,” and a quartet of elementary-school-aged children launched a chant of “We love books!”
“It's a center of the community,” said Frank Gormlie, protest organizer and publisher of OB Rag, a community blog. He jabbed his finger, pointing to the nearby recreation center, elementary school and post office. “O.B. really is a village. It's what everybody else, including the mayor, says they want there to be.”
When city residents look at their libraries and recreation centers, they see beloved institutions where they can send their children for athletic programs and reading groups. They see community centers and meeting areas. But as Sanders seeks ways to close the $43 million gap between what the city expects to spend and what it expects to receive between now and the end of next June, he's had to ask his department heads to take a more analytical approach.
“We need to spread the pain from top to bottom,” he told the City Council last week at an emergency budget hearing.
The City Council must still approve Sanders' proposal, but his approach forced department heads to make tough decisions. To most taxpayers, the most visible and the most painful of the cuts hit the Park and Recreation and Library departments, both of which, in order to save millions of dollars, opted to close branches as the optimal way to meet the budget goals.
“I don't think closing any branches is the best way. Each of these branches is important to the community they're in,” said Deborah Barrow, director of the San Diego Library System. “But we've been asked to be efficient.”
When Barrow looks at the O.B. branch, she sees an 80-year-old, one-story building with no meeting room and a parking lot that's rarely full. At 4,579 square feet, it's the 28th largest of the city's 35 public libraries. City stats rank it 28th in attendance and 25th in circulation. Add in its 1.4-mile proximity to the newer, larger Point Loma Library, and the sum is a library that may be doomed by cold budgetary math.
But not all the facility selections yield so obviously to numerical logic. Sanders mixed in politics when he decided to close one library in every City Council district (excluding District 8, which has only three libraries). The O.B. branch may not be the smallest library in the system, but it is the smallest in City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer's District 2. But neither the Mountain View/Beckwourth nor the Carmel Mountain library branches, both subject to closure, are the smallest in their districts by any measure.
Among recreation centers, the data provided to the City Council shows the Azalea Recreation Center with 75,000 annual attendance getting closed while the Golden Hill center, with 15,000 annual attendees, will remain open. What gives?
“There's no rhyme or reason,” Jimmie Slack, chief of staff to Councilmember Tony Young, told CityBeat.
Barrow said there were many factors in her decision. “It wasn't just least used,” Barrow said. “Sometimes one issue outweighs the other more. How much usage is it getting? Proximity to other libraries? Some libraries had more than one library within two miles, some within a mile.”
She also said they looked at whether the library had meeting rooms and adequate parking—walkability did not enter into her calculations, she said—among other factors.
As for rec centers, Park and Recreation Director Stacey LoMedico said attendance figures might not be the most accurate. “I would caution you that these are estimates,” she told CityBeat. “These are not accurate numbers, in terms of a count.”
Instead of relying on the attendance figures, LoMedico said the department decided to close the Category I rec centers, the smallest ones with a floor area of less than 4,500 square feet (the lone exception, the Mid-City gymnasium, will still lose staff and be run from the park across the street).
“We chose typically from the size and amenities,” she said. Most of the ones proposed for closing “are one large multi-purpose room. It's difficult to program at the same capacity as a large facility, which may have three separate rooms and a large kitchen.”
If the City Council approves the closures, LoMedico promises that the fields and playgrounds around the rec centers will remain open, even ones surrounded by fencing (she said that, if necessary, they'd send someone around to lock and unlock the gates when needed). LoMedico said the windows on the buildings will be covered in Plexiglas to prevent break-ins and the outside of the buildings will be maintained and graffiti will be removed.
On the library side, Sanders also promised Plexiglas and took it a step further, proposing that he might house city staff in the empty buildings.
Sanders spokesperson Rachel Laing said that possibility is still being analyzed. “If a department is renting now and their lease is coming up, maybe we could make use of a closed facility,” she said. “But we don't want to get ourselves into a situation where we're losing money on the deal.”
Meanwhile, residents and City Council members are still hoping to save the libraries and rec centers. In early November, Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin offered a plan to reduce hours at all libraries to save the small ones, but Barrow and LoMedico rejected this idea. Barrow said it would be nearly impossible because there would be no good way to manage the hours of full-time staff who expect to work a 40-hour week (most of the branch libraries are open 48 hours a week).
LoMedico pointed out that her department has 13 fewer full-time employees than it did in 1995, even as the city has added new parks and rec centers nearly every year. Just by glancing at a map, she pointed to two new parks, a new senior center and three new skate parks created since 2003. Reducing hours but keeping centers open, she said, would just spread staff even thinner.
In a second report, issued this past Monday, Tevlin took a more conservative approach. In order to buy time for the City Council to consider which, if any, facilities should be closed, she proposed using two one-time-only windfalls to keep everything open at least until the end of the fiscal year in June. At that point, the city expects to be facing another $45 million deficit, and a whole new set of remedies will have to be considered.
Jared Mason contributed to this story. Send tips and comments
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