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Monday, Dec. 29, 2008 | Sitting in the Mission Valley branch library on a recent Saturday, Larry Edwards was surprised to see it shut down in the early afternoon. Another morning, he stopped by the Ocean Beach library, only to find it closed.

A few decades ago, that branch was open weekday mornings. And when the Mission Valley library opened in 2002, it didn’t shut its doors until 6 p.m. on Saturdays — instead of the current 2:30 p.m. closing time.

“To me, that’s the day it should be open until 8 or 9 o’clock,” said Edwards, 59, who now keeps a list of library hours posted on his fridge so he doesn’t make an unnecessary trip.

Over the years, as San Diego has been gripped by a financial crisis, the hours at the city’s branch libraries have shrunk considerably as city leaders have searched for ways to cut the budget without making more controversial moves such as closing branches altogether. The fact that shuttering libraries became an issue this year when Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed closing seven branches during midyear budget cuts shows that the hours have been cut close to the bone.

Patrons say the frequent reductions have led to more confusing, less convenient times. For instance, the Linda Vista branch — which was open for 52 hours a week in 1999 — is open only 41 hours a week today.

Ben Estopare, 54, said he’s adjusted to the changes by, among other things, hitting the University of San Diego library on Sundays, when the city’s Linda Vista branch is closed. But he said it’s a shame that local children don’t have more time to visit the library.

“Especially here, you’ve got a neighborhood where a lot of the kids don’t have a lot of places to go, so the library’s a good resource for them,” Estopare said.

That branch’s shorter hours mirror a system-wide decline. Though there hasn’t been a constant year-to-year decrease in hours, the average branch library today is open for 43 hours a week compared to nearly 51 hours in 2000. Reductions in 2003 and 2005 account for most of the recent decline.

It’s not a new trend. During the 1970s and 1980s, library hours were frequently cut and often restored in subsequent years.

Historically, when city finances are tight, the budgets for libraries and parks and recreation have been vulnerable. City officials are reluctant to make deep cuts to police and fire services, and public safety takes up more than half of the city’s general fund. That leaves the parks and recreation and library departments, which have the next largest budgets, respectively, and can shoulder bigger cuts than some smaller departments.

When library cuts are sought, shortened hours are a common solution because there are few other big-ticket cuts to the library system.

Cutting the books budget is problematic because that budget is already slim, said Penni Takade, deputy director of the city’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst. She noted that a 2007 report found that San Diego’s per-capita spending on library materials lagged behind other cities.

Another option is the contentious step of closing library branches, one that city officials are typically reluctant to take. Takade said her office typically recommends against closing individual branches to ensure that one community isn’t unfairly affected by budget cuts, while another sees no effect.

“Because of the widespread geographic nature of our city, cutting hours can be more equitable,” Takade said.

But to help close this year’s estimated $43 million midyear budget gap, Sanders proposed closing seven library branches at the suggestion of new Library Director Deborah Barrow. (The mayor asked all city departments to propose 10 percent cuts.)

One reason that closing branches may have been on the table this year is that past reductions of library hours left nothing left to cut, at least in the view of library officials.

“What they say now is that incremental cutting has gotten past a certain critical mass,” Takade said.

Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin had floated a proposal to cut all libraries’ hours to save the seven branches targeted for closure. But Barrow said in a memo that keeping branches open for 36 or 32 hours a week would create logistical problems in scheduling full-time librarians who now work 40-hours a week into a shorter work week.

Barrow wrote that putting librarians into undesirable schedules could lead to high turnover, increased training costs and poor public service.

The City Council eventually decided against closing the libraries this year, but the issue will resurface next year when the city takes up the 2009-10 budget. Council members, at Tevlin’s recommendation, have asked for a study of facilities citywide that could guide future cuts.

They noted that the mayor’s proposal to close libraries was at odds with plans to expand and build new libraries as detailed in a 2002 plan. A new branch in Logan Heights is slated to open in the fall and seven other new buildings are planned, including a grand nine-story downtown building that has languished because of a lack of philanthropic funding. Ten additional expansions are in the plan, including at three branches — Ocean Beach, Carmel Mountain Ranch and University Community — that were slated for closure under Sanders’ proposal.

Past budget cuts have led some bibliophiles to turn to private philanthropy to keep the public institutions open for longer. When the 2005 cuts forced the La Jolla library to close on Sundays and shave its Friday and Saturday hours, the nonprofit Friends of the La Jolla Library successfully petitioned the city to restore the hours using the annual earnings of an estate bequeathed to help the La Jolla branch.

Only three city libraries have Sunday hours funded by private donations. Doug Dawson, vice president of the Friends of the La Jolla Library, believes such agreements will have to be more commonplace because public funds won’t fully support libraries.

“It may appear to be more of a temporary solution,” Dawson said of privately funding library services, “but the reality is, when we return to the best of times economically, we still will need major support from private philanthropy.”

Please contact Rani Gupta directly at rani.gupta@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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