City Leaders Have Mostly Written Off the Library Spending Mandate

City Leaders Have Mostly Written Off the Library Spending Mandate

Photo by Sam Hodgson

The new Central Library.

It’s the mandate that wasn’t.

More than a decade ago, city leaders pledged to funnel at least 6 percent of the day-to-day budget toward library needs by 2005.

That never happened.

The City Council has waived the rule year after year, each time citing other obligations. Only once, the year after the ordinance was approved, did the city keep its legislative commitment to libraries. (At the time, that meant 4.5 percent of the city’s operating budget should go to libraries.)

All this prompted the city’s independent budget analyst to pose a bold question in a recent report: “What happened to the library appropriation ordinance?”

The answer is pretty clear. There was only so much cash to go around.

The ordinance was approved in November 2000, a year before the Sept. 11 attacks pummeled financial markets and the city’s pension system lost money for the first time years. Before long, the city made national headlines for its pension missteps. Related burdens and a worldwide recession complicated matters further.

Many branch library hours were slashed by nearly a third from 2002 to 2012, and sometimes more, as the city sought deep budget cuts. A 2012 Voice of San Diego review found the average branch library was open 53 hours a week in 2002 but fewer than 37 hours a week by early 2012.

From 2009 to 2012, the city spent about 3 percent of its budget on library needs. That percentage inched up slightly upward during the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, though the allocation remains under 4 percent.

 

City Cash Budgeted for Libraries

That’s far below the 6 percent city management was ordered to propose in the 2000 ordinance, a reality that disappoints the former councilwoman who championed the library ordinance.

Judy McCarty, who represented eastern San Diego neighborhoods from 1985 to 2000, urged fellow Council members to approve the ordinance at her last City Council meeting.

She and other library supporters had long complained of a lack of resources and even sufficient housekeeping at the city’s libraries. The Nov. 27, 2000, City Council meeting was McCarty’s last shot to formalize a funding mechanism for them.

Months earlier, the activist arm of the Friends of the San Diego Public Library had gathered about 53,000 signatures supporting a ballot initiative they hoped would eventually force the city to spend 6 percent of its budget on libraries. They fell short of what was necessary to get the measure on the ballot, and the City Council opted against doing so.

Instead, Council members asked city staffers s to return with a proposed ordinance that would include a set figure for the library budget.

McCarty recalls resistant City Council members and staffers at the November 2000 City Council meeting.

“It passed on my last day in office and yes, I was pounding the table,” McCarty said. “I just could not believe that we would get resistance to this. Libraries serve everyone’s communities.”

She and other supporters compromised to allow it to go forward.

City administrators worried about setting an amount in stone and being unable to change it in the face of a crisis. At their urging, McCarty said, she agreed to a version of the ordinance that would allow the requirement to be waived if city officials found their ability to maintain essential city services “necessary for preserving the health, safety and welfare of the citizens” compromised by the measure.

The City Council has relied on this exemption for more than a decade, including this year, when they attempted to add library hours lost during trying financial times. (The latter plans were scuttled by an unexpected pension board vote that left the city without cash it had expected.)

McCarty wants the City Council to finally set aside the cash the city once promised for libraries.

“I understand that times have been tough and there hasn’t been money to do a lot of important things but that’s in the past now,” she said. “Put money in libraries.”

Former Councilman Jim Madaffer, who served as McCarty’s chief of staff at the time, agreed.

“The waiver wasn’t put in place for budgetary convenience,” he said. “The waiver was put in place for legitimate reasons. Right now that the city seems to be out of the woods and on good financial footing. It would seem that the Council really doesn’t have a good reason to waive it anymore.”

But most city officials, including one who is vying to become mayor, seem to see the 6 percent figure as more of goal than a mandate.

Take interim mayor Todd Gloria, who will oversee the start of the budget process this year. He doesn’t seem too concerned with falling short of the mandate – but he doesn’t think it should be axed, either.

“It’s sort of like the angel on your shoulder whispering in your ear, serving as a regular reminder about the importance of investing in our libraries,” Gloria said. “While we might not meet the mandate, we’re always striving to spend as much on libraries as possible and repealing the ordinance would send the wrong message.”

Mayoral candidate and Councilman Kevin Faulconer views the ordinance as a longer-term target.

“The ordinance represents a worthy goal, and we can make progress toward it with the leadership of a mayor who will continue reforming government so we have the money to start spending on programs that improve our neighborhoods,” he said.

Fellow mayoral contender and Councilman David Alvarez and Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin prefer another approach.

Alvarez has consistently pushed for increases in library hours but said the library ordinance was the wrong way to handle such funding.

“When the Council passes mandated spending ordinances, such as the library ordinance, we are not able to have an honest conversation with residents about budget priorities, which change over the course of time,” he said.

Tevlin holds a similar view.

She said setting exact percentages for any sort of city spending, even as well-intentioned as the library ordinance, takes away flexibility that city leaders and residents deserve in the budget process.

“You’re putting community expectations out there that probably won’t be met,” Tevlin said.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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25 comments
Richard Ross
Richard Ross

There is a simple solution to this. Turn the new library over to civic San Diego and the housing commission to jointly operate as the new homeless shelter (which is destained to be anyway). Then devote the money saved from maintaining it to restoring the outlying neighborhood library hours.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross subscribermember

There is a simple solution to this. Turn the new library over to civic San Diego and the housing commission to jointly operate as the new homeless shelter (which is destained to be anyway). Then devote the money saved from maintaining it to restoring the outlying neighborhood library hours.

Edward Teyssier
Edward Teyssier

It is a shame that the Friends didn't get the measure on the ballot! If they had, it would have been voted down and we wouldn't be debating this issue any more.

While everyone thinks fondly of libraries. MOST of us realize that libraries way behind the times. Seriously, what is the function of libraries in a world where books are readily available and the Internet is much more accessible than going to a brick and mortar building?

Edward Teyssier
Edward Teyssier subscriber

It is a shame that the Friends didn't get the measure on the ballot! If they had, it would have been voted down and we wouldn't be debating this issue any more.

While everyone thinks fondly of libraries. MOST of us realize that libraries way behind the times. Seriously, what is the function of libraries in a world where books are readily available and the Internet is much more accessible than going to a brick and mortar building?

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

At my local branch Library, most re-shelving is done by volunteers, and I have never been asked to refrain from replacing books I have taken from the shelves. In fact, I have never seen such a bin in the user areas of the Library.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

“Right now that the city seems to be out of the woods and on good financial footing. It would seem that the council doesn’t have a good reason to waive it anymore.” I won’t bother to correct the grammar, that’s what was written, and it’s apparently a quote from Jim Madaffer. Looks like Madaffer is just as clueless as he was on the council.

These budgetary straightjackets, whether they involve school funding at the state level or libraries at the local level, always cause problems. Politicians endorse them to demonstrate a (sort of) commitment to an issue that is temporarily on the front burner, knowing they have wiggle room if it proves inconvenient.

Although the library hours are a disgrace, many of the branch libraries are otherwise in pretty good shape thanks to a bunch of mostly young, energetic branch managers and very active “Friends” groups. Many library supporters were skeptical of the new Taj Mahal, because we were afraid it would suck more resources from the branches. VOSD would be well advised to keep an eye on budget maneuvers, because that's what's likely to happen..

The branches provide, at the community level, all of the special services proclaimed for the new central edifice (except housing a charter high school). You’ll find concerts, art shows, community meetings and special children’s programs at the branches and much more. Even with minimal city budgets, e.g., last I checked the ADMINISTRATION of the pension plan was costing more than the amount budgeted for the entire library system, the branches are doing OK. Let’s hope the central administration doesn’t decide to provide a lot more “guidance”.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

“Right now that the city seems to be out of the woods and on good financial footing. It would seem that the council doesn’t have a good reason to waive it anymore.” I won’t bother to correct the grammar, that’s what was written, and it’s apparently a quote from Jim Madaffer. Looks like Madaffer is just as clueless as he was on the council.

These budgetary straightjackets, whether they involve school funding at the state level or libraries at the local level, always cause problems. Politicians endorse them to demonstrate a (sort of) commitment to an issue that is temporarily on the front burner, knowing they have wiggle room if it proves inconvenient.

Although the library hours are a disgrace, many of the branch libraries are otherwise in pretty good shape thanks to a bunch of mostly young, energetic branch managers and very active “Friends” groups. Many library supporters were skeptical of the new Taj Mahal, because we were afraid it would suck more resources from the branches. VOSD would be well advised to keep an eye on budget maneuvers, because that's what's likely to happen..

The branches provide, at the community level, all of the special services proclaimed for the new central edifice (except housing a charter high school). You’ll find concerts, art shows, community meetings and special children’s programs at the branches and much more. Even with minimal city budgets, e.g., last I checked the ADMINISTRATION of the pension plan was costing more than the amount budgeted for the entire library system, the branches are doing OK. Let’s hope the central administration doesn’t decide to provide a lot more “guidance”.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa

In the eyes of city officials there will never be enough money in the budget to meet the mandate. Always an excuse to short change the library.

mlaiuppa
mlaiuppa subscriber

In the eyes of city officials there will never be enough money in the budget to meet the mandate. Always an excuse to short change the library.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Yet another example of the opportunity costs associated with the pension scheme that will plague
the city till 2025 or beyond.
“The waiver was put in place for legitimate reasons" This from one of the perps Jim Madaffer
Sorry about your libraries but we pirated the wealth.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Yet another example of the opportunity costs associated with the pension scheme that will plague
the city till 2025 or beyond.
“The waiver was put in place for legitimate reasons" This from one of the perps Jim Madaffer
Sorry about your libraries but we pirated the wealth.

Dennis
Dennis

Let us not forget that recreation center hours have been cut in half since 2000.

It was fun having the lights turned off my sons basketball practice at 6:00 PM this evening.

Dennis
Dennis subscriber

Let us not forget that recreation center hours have been cut in half since 2000.

It was fun having the lights turned off my sons basketball practice at 6:00 PM this evening.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

I would be willing to help the library become partially self-sustaining by renting things from the library like tools, cake pans, camera lenses, musical instruments, and recent movies on DVD, and to be able to use expensive software and hardware like Photoshop and slide and negative scanners. But for some reason people think libraries should be limited to books, CDs, and DVDs, and that everything at the library should always be free for everyone, not just people on low incomes.

This is why we have budget problems.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

I would be willing to help the library become partially self-sustaining by renting things from the library like tools, cake pans, camera lenses, musical instruments, and recent movies on DVD, and to be able to use expensive software and hardware like Photoshop and slide and negative scanners. But for some reason people think libraries should be limited to books, CDs, and DVDs, and that everything at the library should always be free for everyone, not just people on low incomes.

This is why we have budget problems.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

Snarky!

You've been to the new library, I assume? How many homeless people did you see?

I've been there several times and haven't seen a problem with transients. And while I'm a big library fan, I'm not oblivious to this issue since I spent a lot of time at the old downtown library.

The difference: This library is bustling with kids, with students, with families.

If you'd like to meet there and compare notes about the transients you observe in the reading room, just let me know some good times.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Snarky!

You've been to the new library, I assume? How many homeless people did you see?

I've been there several times and haven't seen a problem with transients. And while I'm a big library fan, I'm not oblivious to this issue since I spent a lot of time at the old downtown library.

The difference: This library is bustling with kids, with students, with families.

If you'd like to meet there and compare notes about the transients you observe in the reading room, just let me know some good times.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga

Why don't you go to the central library and ask the hundreds of people who are there at any one time?

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Why don't you go to the central library and ask the hundreds of people who are there at any one time?

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson

I think the entire library system should have received that money that went to the downtown palace that most citizens wont use. How often do people who don't live within 5 miles of downtown go downtown to use a library? The branches have been left to rot and there is no money for them. Like it or not, 95% of the population of the city does not live downtown and their needs are not being met by the antiquated library system.

John Pilch
John Pilch

I agree with David. As a volunteer at the San Carlos branch library, we encourage patrons to browse at their leisure and put the books back on the shelf, if it's in the same place. We do have carts for patrons to place books, after taking them to a table for reading, etc. That way, the staff and volunteers can insure that the next person looking for one of those books will find it where it should be. It's not draconian; just common sense. Hope your next experience at San Carlos is more enjoyable Marsha.

Marsha5200
Marsha5200

We have budget problems because they are paying people to re-shelf books. I was in the San Carlos library the other day and was told even if I did not take the book off of the shelf but just touched it I had to take it out and put it in a bin to be re-shelfed by an employee. We could save money by letting the patrons put the book back themselves.The reason they gave me for this procedure was they want to know what books people are looking at.

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson subscriber

I think the entire library system should have received that money that went to the downtown palace that most citizens wont use. How often do people who don't live within 5 miles of downtown go downtown to use a library? The branches have been left to rot and there is no money for them. Like it or not, 95% of the population of the city does not live downtown and their needs are not being met by the antiquated library system.

John Pilch
John Pilch subscriber

I agree with David. As a volunteer at the San Carlos branch library, we encourage patrons to browse at their leisure and put the books back on the shelf, if it's in the same place. We do have carts for patrons to place books, after taking them to a table for reading, etc. That way, the staff and volunteers can insure that the next person looking for one of those books will find it where it should be. It's not draconian; just common sense. Hope your next experience at San Carlos is more enjoyable Marsha.

David Cohen
David Cohen

At my local branch Library, most re-shelving is done by volunteers, and I have never been asked to refrain from replacing books I have taken from the shelves. In fact, I have never seen such a bin in the user areas of the Library.