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Almost exactly five years ago, former Mayor Dick Murphy and City Councilwoman Donna Frye — not always the best of friends — held a joint celebration of sorts at the newly opened Mission Valley Library. Murphy, who was named Politician of the Year in 2004 by Library Journal, and Frye, were joyous about the opening of the new branch in Mission Valley.

And it is a nice place — worthy of celebration. For a branch library, it’s enormous. At 19,000 square feet, the library can hold 70,000 books and any number of events for the community. I’ve only been there once and I’m no fan of Mission Valley, but this is a jewel within that nauseating neighborhood.

Look at the description Murphy’s press people put out at the time:

Visual highlights of the library are interior designs by Michelle Linback and public art by Joyce Cutler Shaw. Grand steel columns designed to resemble tree branches support large steel plates cut into the shape of a sycamore tree canopy. The library’s mezzanine is edged with a brass and steel protective railing with etchings of tall valley grasses. The mezzanine itself will provide the community with the opportunity to venture outside to read a book, gaze at the panoramic views of the valley or savor the cool ocean breezes. The library’s clock tower has a glass top that will glow with a different color every 15 minutes.

One of the more enchanting places will be the east garden opposite the children’s library. This garden “oasis” comes complete with a shallow linear reflecting pool meandering its way toward the San Diego River.

It’s a wonderful place, really.

When it’s open.

It was supposed to be open a lot.

Murphy and Councilman Jim Madaffer — the council’s library enthusiast — thought the Mission Valley library should be something special. And Murphy’s press people made sure to note how:

The Mission Valley Branch Library will be open longer than any other branch. The plan by Mayor Murphy and Councilmember Jim Madaffer was to have one branch that San Diegans could count on to be almost always open. Hours will be 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday; and 2 to 10 p.m., Sunday.

That’s 76 hours a week.

This year, it’s open 45 hours a week — not quite “almost always open.”

Vladimir “The Force” Kogan, helped me illustrate what this means day by day for potential visitors to the library. Below you’ll see each day of the week and how much of those days were open to visitors to the Mission Valley branch in 2002 compared to 2007.

Madaffer and Murphy put together a plan to build a world-class library system in 2002 (and passed it the very same day they approved the notorious 2002 pension benefits/underfunding deal).

The plan is to build several new branch libraries and, of course, the star of Library Fortnight, the $185 million +++ new main library downtown.

But, as the City Council’s independent budget analyst discovered last year:

Library hours per week have declined precipitously in recent years from 1,904 hours per week in FY 2003 to 1,518 hours per week in FY 2006. A majority of the branch libraries are open 41 hours per week on 6 days, with limited schedules on Fridays and Saturdays.

In fact, things have been so bad for the local branches that Mayor Jerry Sanders actually was able to proudly trumpet the fact that he wasn’t reducing their hours this year.

So let’s review: At the same time we’re holding at least $80 million in reserve for the new main library downtown (and we know it’s going to be more than that) we’re “precipitously” reducing the hours at the other branches in the city.

I know, downtown boosters argue that the funds set aside for the new main library are redevelopment monies that can’t be used for things like maintenance and operations of the buildings in the city — especially those outside of downtown. I dealt with this here to some extent, but I’ll do it again. The funds must be used for brick-and-mortar construction projects downtown. I agree, but the city’s general fund, which can certainly be used to pay for library operations, is drawn down every year to pay for construction and infrastructure downtown. We pay millions, for example, each year to retire the debt we incurred to build the new ballpark (downtown).

The $80 million can be used to pay that debt and other obligations of the city and the money freed up in the general fund can be used to increase library hours and other services.

It’s very simple.

“I don’t think people realize that we’re sacrificing our ongoing quality of life across the city so that downtown can have all these great projects,” Frye told me.

Mayor Sanders thinks of it differently — as an investment in downtown that you just have to hold onto through thick and thin.

Sanders compared it to an IRA to me one day. No way would he cash out his IRA in order to live a little better now, he said.

What do you think? Are we sacrificing now for a safe retirement, or for a yacht that we can hardly afford to staff?

SCOTT LEWIS

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