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Most Libraries in Orange County Are 'Haves' in a Sea of 'Have-Nots'

March 12, 1990|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Orange County, the Fountain Valley Public Library is so flush with funding that its new branch, now under construction, will feature reading lounges with fireplaces, original artwork, sculptures in the patios and a 30-foot dragon in the children's wing.

The designer library, with its striking fan-shaped building, black-and-white tile floors and color scheme of turquoise, pink and sea green, will have the architectural elan of a modern art museum.

But while the Orange County Public Library system is thriving, Shasta County's libraries are struggling for survival. The funding shortage afflicting the Northern California county is so critical that all 10 libraries closed in 1988 for seven months. Only the main facility and two branches have since reopened, but with reduced hours.

California's libraries are increasingly being divided "between the haves and the have-nots," said California State Librarian Gary E. Strong.

The surge in real estate values and explosive growth during much of the 1980s has increased property-tax revenues and created more funding for libraries in fast-growing counties such as Orange County and Los Angeles County.

But in California's poorer communities or counties where there has been little growth, libraries never have recovered from the effects of Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting initiative.

"There's not much middle ground anymore . . . there's this disparity, and it's only going to become more pronounced," Strong said. "Those affluent communities with a lot of growth and the commitment to libraries are doing well. But those other areas are going to barely be able to keep their libraries open."

The late 1970s were the dark days for Southern California libraries, which faced a struggle for survival after the passage of Proposition 13. Branches were closed. Hours were cut. Librarians were fired. Budgets were slashed.

Today, many Southern California libraries still are struggling. But there are signs of resurgence, and some communities are in better shape now than at any time since Proposition 13.

The Orange County Public Library represents a shining exception to the dreary future faced by many other library systems across the country. The 27-branch library system is brimming with tax money.

The library recovered from initial cutbacks caused by Proposition 13 because the measure had less of an impact on the taxes for new home purchases, which soared during the 1980s in Orange County. A full 75% of the system's current $23-million budget for 1989-90 comes from the county's tax base, swollen from rising land and housing prices.

Moreover, the county requires community developers to pay a portion of new library costs.

The surge in funding has even enabled Orange County to provide some of the best library service in the state. And more affluent communities such as Fountain Valley can add city funds to their county funding and create impressive branch libraries.

Los Angeles County also has experienced a great deal of growth and rising property values and, as a result, the library system has made a strong recovery from the tax cuts of the late 1970s.

"Right now, we fortunately are in good shape," said County Librarian Sandra Reuben. "There's been a natural increase in funding because of the health of the real estate market in Los Angeles. This is where we differ from other parts of the state."

In Ventura County, growth has helped, but libraries "still don't have the buying power that they had had prior to 1978," said Dixie Adeniran, the director of library services for Ventura County. The most immediate problem in Ventura County is lack of space. At the Oxnard Public Library, about 4,000 unshelved books are piled on the floor in stacks several feet high, and another 12,000 books are in storage because there simply is no room on the shelves.

Because of slow-growth measures in Santa Barbara, the county library system has not greatly benefited from property-tax revenues, said Carol Keator, director of the Santa Barbara Public Library system. The downtown library, considered one of the finest small libraries in the state, receives adequate funding because city officials have made a commitment to the facility. But branches outside the city receive only limited county funding, which has not kept pace with inflation.

"There's been a significant erosion in the county's libraries," Keator said. "We've lost staff positions and service hours. And we've been unable to buy many of the books we need, or replace a lot of older materials."

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