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Activists Vow to Reverse Library Cuts : Budget: Proposed spending reductions would force the year-old facility to close a third day each week. But supporters are rallying to its defense.

May 04, 1993|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hobbling past its one-year anniversary on reduced hours and services, Oxnard's $12-million public library now faces closure three days a week because city officials can't find the cash to keep its doors open.

The state-of-the-art, red-brick building already is closed Fridays and Sundays, the result of a 32% budget reduction over the last two years.

But the biggest blow came two weeks ago when the Oxnard City Council tentatively agreed, as part of balancing the city's budget, to further slash library services and close the new two-story building a third day each week.

Council members also agreed to shut the doors at the mini-library in Oxnard's La Colonia and reduce operations at the branch library in the South Oxnard Center. The library system cuts total about $208,000.

Those decisions sparked a newfound activism, with library patrons and supporters embarking on an ambitious petition drive and letter-writing campaign aimed at reversing those cuts.

In addition, library supporters promise to pack City Council meetings every week until the decision is overturned.

"It seems to be the question over and over in Oxnard," said Felicity Harper, president of the Friends of the Oxnard Library. "If they didn't plan to support it, why did they build it in the first place?"

Added Madeline Miedema, a member of the city's library board: "Even during the Great Depression, I can't remember the library ever being closed three days a week. The idea seems so cruel, really."

With 250,000 books on the shelves and an average of 2,000 patrons a day, the new 72,000-square-foot library at 2nd and A streets was nearly 10 years in the making.

Overcrowded and out of space at the old library, city officials hired a library consultant in 1984 to lay out plans for the new building. Two years later, after setting aside land near City Hall for the facility, the council hired a San Francisco-based architect to design the split-level edifice.

Over the next four years, the City Council approved the building's design, sold $11 million in bonds to finance construction and staged a grand opening for the library in March, 1992.

And through the process, residents and city officials urged caution.

"I argued vehemently in the beginning about taking on such a large financial responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the building," Councilman Michael Plisky said. "It fell on deaf ears."

The new library operates on a $2.4-million annual budget, an increase of $87,000 over the costs of running the old facility.

Plisky said that at the time plans were laid out for the new library, few people wanted to consider the increased operating expenses.

"The attitude always is we will build it now and worry about paying for it later," he said. "I'm not opposed to building these things as long we provide for care and upkeep. I think we need to be a little more sensible about how we handle these matters."

What the city got for its money is an architecturally impressive structure filled with columns and arches, a facility four times as big as the library it replaced.

The building has marble counters, sweeping staircases and outdoor patios. The reference signs are in English and Spanish. The water fountains automatically turn on when approached.

On a recent morning, a group of sixth graders from Rio Plaza school in El Rio packed the south end of the building and listened intently to a story told by a library staff member. An average of one class a day visits the building.

"It's a shame," teacher Laura Krall said of the impending cuts. "This is an educational resource for the entire community."

The campaign to spare the library from further cuts is being waged out of the first-floor gift shop.

More than 100 library supporters have signed a petition on the counter next to the shop's cash register. The petition, urging city officials to reverse their decision, will be presented to the council in coming weeks.

"The councilmen stood right out there and said they were going to listen to the people," gift shop manager Arline Sincoff said, referring to a nearby stairwell where council members took the oath of office in November.

"Well, the people want this library open," she said. "It's probably one of the best things Oxnard has ever done."

Norma Van Riper, a retired librarian at Hueneme High School and now a member of the Friends of the Oxnard Library, said she hopes residents get behind the effort to keep the library open five days a week.

"I think our willingness to support it will say a great deal about the community," Van Riper said. "I think any more cuts would be a terrible comment on this city."

FYI: Patrons and supporters of the Oxnard Library plan to attend City Council meetings every Tuesday this month to urge the City Council to reverse a decision to cut library hours. The council is expected to review the issue on May 25 when it considers a preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 1993-94.

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