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Veronica McNeil wrote a small list of everything the city of San Diego’s libraries meant to her life. Dealing with homelessness. Becoming a minister. Learning to read.

She told them to San Diego’s City Council Thursday, something she wouldn’t have been able to do until a year ago when a literacy program at the city’s Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park taught her to read for the first time.

Now, she said, when she walks or drives, life is different. She knows what billboards and street signs say.

“I learned to read from A to Z,” said McNeil, 50, after she spoke to the council. McNeil had dabbed away her tears at the council podium, smudging the black ink with which she had written her list.

She came to council to protest Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposal to cut branch library hours in half to 18.5 a week to help close another of the city’s budget gaps.

“It would be devastating,” she said.

If you listened to City Council members, McNeil and the dozens of others who spoke out against massive reductions to libraries and parks and recreation departments had no reason to be there. One after the other, council members said they had no stomach for cuts to libraries or recreation centers, whose hours also would be halved.

Library and rec center reductions are the most high-profile in Sanders’ proposal to close a $56.7 million deficit, which jumps by $16.5 million including costs to restore some fire department services and other adjustments.

But, as council members have said for a while now, the library and parks and recreation reductions are not going to be approved.

“I wanted to go out on a limb,” Councilman Kevin Faulconer said. “Not too far out on a limb, and say, ladies and gentlemen these proposed cuts will not stand.”

Thursday wasn’t a day of decisions. The city’s budget process requires each department to provide an overview of the mayor’s proposal to the council. Approving the budget, including choices on what to cut in place of libraries and rec centers, will come later. Financial plans floated by various council members include raising revenue projections and cutting employee cell phones and overtime, but nothing has the endorsement of a council majority.

The mayor’s proposal prompted residents to testify how much libraries, parks and recreation centers mattered. Especially to the children. Libraries and rec centers, one speaker said, “save lives.” They are “the glue that keep our neighborhoods together,” said another. If they’re cut, a third added, the city will lose kids to drugs, gangs or death.

The crowd hissed and booed when Library Director Deborah Barrow read out the proposed reductions to branch hours. Just after Barrow finished, almost on cue, a baby cried.

For their part, council members kept pace with the public in lamenting the proposed cuts. The outpouring of support from library and parks and recreation center advocates made Councilwoman Marti Emerald feel “like we’re touched by angels.” Councilwoman Lorie Zapf recounted the trip she and her daughters took to Mission Trails Regional Park last weekend. She became so overcome she forgot one of her questions.

“I got so passionate I lost my place,” Zapf said.

Even if the council were to accept the library and rec center cuts, the city still would face a $41 million deficit next year because of the short-term fixes in the mayor’s proposed budget. Short-term fixes, by definition, don’t help the city’s long-term financial problems, such as flat tax revenues and increased pension costs.

Should the council use more short-term fixes to ease the current budget pain, the 2013 gap will increase. Closing that deficit could force library and parks and recreation center supporters to come back once again to protest cuts. After all, the council already shelved similar library and rec center reductions two-and-a-half years ago.

“Some day,” City Councilman Carl DeMaio told the crowd, “it’s not just going to be a drill. It’s going to be real.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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