Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009 | In 2002, then-Mayor Dick Murphy announced an ambitious library expansion plan that he promised would bring San Diego’s library system into the 21st century.

Thirteen new libraries would be built and nine others would be expanded at a cost of more than $300 million. The City Council had also passed an ordinance saying the city would earmark a portion of its general fund for libraries, a percentage that would increase until the library budget made up 6 percent of the day-to-day budget.

That never happened, as the library budget has dwindled in recent years. At the same time, the expansion plans have never been comprehensively revised, with some new facilities opening and others stalled, though they remain in the city’s official plans.

Residents continue to raise money and prepare for expansions that may or may not take place. And there has been no real discussion about how the new and larger branches — if and when they open — will affect current library services. Therefore it’s unclear whether new libraries will cause the closure of existing branches, slashed hours or reduced staff — or if the city will find a way to pay for the libraries through new revenues or cuts elsewhere.

The conflict between the declining library budget and the expansion plans was underscored late last year, when Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed shuttering seven branches, including some that were slated for expansions. City Council members decided against closing the branches amid public outcry.

Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin said the six new or expanded branch libraries the city has opened under the building plan increase operating costs at the same time the city struggles to fund its current library services. She said the failure to revisit the building plan creates potentially false expectations for residents, given the lack of funding for most of the library plans.

“While they don’t have completion dates,” Tevlin said of the new branches, “the expectations are clearly there in the community for them to happen. That really has to be revisited. … What is it we’re really going to be able to do?”

Tevlin says the city should make sure it has the funds to operate facilities in the future before building them. New facilities have been opened with bare-bones staff and can affect services at existing facilities. While the city has opened a half-dozen new or larger libraries since 2003, the number of hours the average branch library is open has dropped from 54 per week in the 2002-03 budget year to 43 hours today.

Tevlin hasn’t called for an overhaul of the library building plan in past years, though she acknowledges that the failure to fund the library ordinance should have been a sign that such a revision was necessary, given the trouble the city was having paying for its existing library services.

The library ordinance was approved in 2000, not long after voters rejected a countywide tax hike to improve libraries. The Friends of the San Diego Library, who were concerned about what they believed was inadequate funding doled out to libraries, attempted to put a citywide measure to fund libraries on the ballot. City Council members rejected that idea, but they passed an ordinance to incrementally increase library funding until it reached the 6 percent goal.

When the ordinance was passed, the library budget made up 4 percent of the city’s main account. Now it accounts for just over 3 percent.

The 2002 library expansion plan, meanwhile, called for improvements and expansions that would be financed with a hodgepodge of funds, including redevelopment money, grants and impact fees. The city aimed to pay the bulk of the costs with bonds that would be repaid with hotel-tax and tobacco settlement money.

Those plans were upended when the city’s credit rating was stripped in 2004 in the midst of the pension scandal. Citing the tight budget, city officials stopped allocating a portion of hotel-tax money for library expansions in 2005.

Projects that were already underway chugged along. Later this year, a new 25,000-square-foot Logan Heights branch is set to open, replacing a much smaller one built in 1927.

The Logan Heights library is being constructed with the help of a $5.25 million state grant, and library branches that have been able to secure some funding have crept along.

For instance, land has been purchased and preliminary designs have been completed for an expanded Ocean Beach library, one of the seven that Sanders proposed closing last year. Land has also been secured for a new Mission Hills-Hillcrest branch and design work is underway.

However, other branches without funding have stalled, though they remain unchanged in the city’s official plans and many of the original targeted completion dates have lapsed.

At the same time, the city has not met the funding requirements of the library ordinance, which the City Council has waived since 2004.

The library budget has made up an increasingly smaller portion of the general fund, from 4.8 percent in 2004 to 3.1 percent now. The actual dollar amount of the budget increased from 2005 to 2007, though it has dropped since then, from $38.7 million in 2007 to $37 million this year.

Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said there are no plans to rewrite the long-term building plan now because doing so in a recession would shortchange future libraries. “It’s not a time to build a long-range comprehensive plan for libraries,” she said.

Laing said city officials are focused mainly on getting through the budget crisis. With the exception of Logan Heights, Laing said, no new libraries are expected to open in the next few years, so the general fund won’t take a hit.

However, others say the plan must be revised, though there’s no consensus on the direction it should take. Some believe the library plan and ordinance reflect the people’s will and that city officials must find a way to pay for them, instead of letting projects die on the vine. Others believe the original goals of the library ordinance and expansion plan may have been unrealistic and should be revised to a more plausible level so residents have a better idea of what the library system will look like in the future.

Tevlin said both the library ordinance and the facilities plan set expectations for residents that the city has not been able to meet.

“Given our current situation and the deficit projected for the next couple years, it’s a very difficult thing to be able to complete new facilities and staff them without other significant reductions or revenues,” she said. “If we are going to do it, we need to put a plan together.”

Tevlin has advocated revisiting the library ordinance, saying the 6 percent goal may no longer practical, given how rarely it has been met. A 2007 report from her office comparing San Diego’s libraries to 14 similar systems found that no city spent 6 percent of its general fund on the libraries, though the other library systems had better staffing ratios and spent more on books and other materials per person than San Diego.

Some have called for the library budget to be spared this year, despite the city’s projected budget gap for the upcoming year. Anna Daniels, a library employee who helped spearhead opposition to last year’s proposed closings, said the library’s services are needed the most during a recession and shouldn’t be scaled back because libraries have been “chronically underfunded.”

“It’s a complete lack of political will,” she said. “We have had some flush years and we’ve built Petco Park, we’ve done the Chargers stadium, we’ve had the Republican convention. We’re not buying that there’s just not enough money and that you just have to take your medicine and shut up.”

While library services have been depleted in the form of staffing cuts, Daniels said, the building plan has been ignored as buildings are incrementally pushed back. She said the plan should be reexamined carefully, given the lengthy process used to formulate it the first place.

“This is not something you do in three days with five people,” she said. “Get all the stakeholders together and revisit this thing, but don’t pull it apart pieces at a time. The revisions should be undertaken just as seriously as when that plan was put together.”

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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