Kevin Faulconer was the first member of the San Diego City Council to seize the “I'm going to save the libraries!” opportunity, the Republican joining forces with the lefty, Ocean Beach-based news and opinion website OBRag.org on a petition drive to stave off a proposed cut in hours at the Ocean Beach branch library.
Within short order, his Democratic colleague, Todd Gloria, announced a plan to reject all of the library hours and staffing cuts proposed citywide by Mayor Jerry Sanders. Gloria was joined by Republican Lorie Zapf and Democrats Tony Young and David Alvarez, each politician lunging to rescue one of the more wholesome services a city offers. Who loves libraries? Everyone but those cold-hearted futurists who say they're brick-and-mortar relics of a bygone era.
But people still do use libraries. Last week at a City Council hearing, a number of people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder told heart-rending stories about how important their branch libraries are to them. One woman choked up as she talked about how the city's library-based literacy program (which needs volunteer tutors, by the way) is saving her life. It was compelling TV for those of us watching at home.
However, that anecdotal evidence must be juxtaposed with numbers. The first number is $56.7 million, which is how much the city has to cut from its budget to be in balance. Sanders has proposed getting $7.4 million of that from the libraries.
The next number is 37,610, which was the number of residents for every library in San Diego the last time statewide statistics were compiled (two years ago). That only means something when compared with other large cities in California, and among those with more than 300,000 residents (Sacramento, Fresno and Bakersfield not reported), only Oakland and San Francisco had more libraries per capita.
However, here's another number: 29.13. That's how many dollars San Diego spent operating its libraries per capita, according to the same study, conducted by the office of the California State Library. In that category, San Diego ranked lower than San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Riverside and Anaheim, higher than only Long Beach. And San Diego has cut several million dollars from its library budget since then.
So, San Diego has a relatively large number of libraries, but it operates them relatively cheaply. With that in mind, we support efforts to redirect the budget knife away from the library system.
However, that's not the same as saying that all library hours at all of San Diego's branch libraries are precious. There are opportunities to streamline and combine. For example, attendance at both the Clairemont and North Clairemont libraries is below the average among all branches—at least according to a study done two years ago by the City Council's Independent Budget Analyst—and they're close together. Sanders' proposal includes a “pairing” component—staggering days of operation between two nearby libraries—that should still be considered in order to get the best bang for the buck, as long as attendance is relatively low at both branches. Money saved there can be shifted to beef up operations at branches that enjoy heavy attendance and branches in poorer communities where people rely on libraries for internet access and youth programs.
This approach runs counter to the typical political approach to dilemmas in San Diego. A couple of years ago, the mayor's proposal to cut the library budget was to identify one branch library for closure in each City Council district. While that would have spread the pain evenly among politicians, it wasn't necessarily the best way to cut the budget while inflicting the least amount of harm to the system and the people who use it.
If the City Council can save the overall library department from cuts, great. But then the council should be open to shifting dollars within the system, and individual council members need to be willing to sacrifice if the good of the system means losing more library hours than a colleague in another district—even if it means reduced hours at Faulconer's new favorite library in his favorite counterculture enclave.
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