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Housing Chief to Offer Funds for Barrio Library

June 08, 1993|MATTHEW MOSK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The head of the Oxnard Housing Department says he is willing to dip into his department's funds to save a branch of the Oxnard library that now faces closure in the city's La Colonia barrio.

"People here want to work to keep the library," said Sal Gonzalez, the director of city housing. "If the problem is with funding, we will talk to the council about using our funds to help pay for it."

The plan to close the library branch was proposed last month by city library officials, and it will be discussed today at a public City Council budget hearing.

Gonzalez said he will present his offer at today's hearing if neither the library director, Gail Warner, nor council members come up with another proposal to save the Colonia library.

City Councilman Tom Holden greeted the offer by Gonzalez favorably, saying he opposes cutting services, especially in areas like La Colonia, where they are needed most.

"It sounds like Sal may have a creative solution to this," Holden said. "Anytime anyone gets creative, I like it."

But Carlos Aguilera, the president of the La Colonia neighborhood council, said he had hoped the library officials or the council members could have found a way to avoid proposing the cut in the first place.

"Mr. Gonzalez's intentions are great," Aguilera said, "But we need the support of more than just the Housing Department. We need the support of the council."

Warner said she would not discuss the offer until it is presented to the council.

Gonzalez's proposal comes at a time when there is growing division between residents of La Colonia who see the mini-library as vital, and library officials, who see it as obsolete.

This would not be the first time the Housing Department funded an otherwise doomed program, Gonzalez said. In the past, the Housing Department has paid to staff a senior center in La Colonia, and picked up the cost of maintaining security in La Colonia's three public housing projects.

"Most of the library's beneficiaries are from the (public housing) projects, and an argument can be made that we should help out," Gonzalez said.

The Housing Department, which uses its $2.9 million budget to maintain Oxnard's public housing facilities, does have room to allocate the $16,652 needed annually to maintain the mini-library, according to Roger Rider, the administrative services manager at the department.

"We would consider it an additional service to the tenants," Rider said. "When the housing director requires it, there is always money. It's just a matter of re-prioritizing."

Gonzalez's proposal comes at a time when the city is asking Oxnard's Library Department to consider closing the city's main library for an additional day each week. It currently is closed two days a week.

Warner said the Library Department's proposal to close the one-room La Colonia branch library was not strictly financial, but was related also to increased use of the city's main library by La Colonia residents.

"The mini-library was started in the '70s to introduce children of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the concept of public libraries," Warner said. "Coming to the main library has become a habit now.

"Why would they go to a small room of books when they could come here?" she asked, pointing to one of the large, well-stocked wings of Oxnard's one-year-old main library.

Warner also argued that the La Colonia library branch is obsolete. She said the number of books taken out has dropped by 75% in the last year. According to the library's figures, less than 2% of all the books checked out from the city's main library and two branches are from the La Colonia branch.

But Aguilera, the neighborhood council president, said the poor working community is being robbed of an educational resource it needs.

"I think the council can look elsewhere to save $16,000," Aguilera said. "You can't just look at the numbers. You have to look at potential. The new library does not serve the Hispanic community the way this library has the potential to do."

Aguilera said his anger over the proposed cut is partially fueled by the fact that the multi-services center, where the library is located, has slowly been drained of its services.

Gonzalez described the once bustling services center as "a ghost town." Rooms which previously housed a medical clinic, an immigration office and a day-care center are empty. Gonzalez said the library, which opened in the center in 1975, is one of the few remaining services.

Aguilera said that the need for keeping the La Colonia library extends to safety concerns. He said there are "very real problems" of safety that are raised when asking young children to walk an extra mile to the main library branch in downtown Oxnard.

Kathy Cano, a La Colonia resident who works in the community center, agreed.

"They figure La Colonia kids can just walk over the bridge," she said. "Parents don't want them walking that far. It's a long distance for a 5- or 6-year-old."

Eason Ramirez, a 13-year-old who regularly visits the library, said he thinks parents would not let their children make the walk to the main library.

"The other library is too far for them to go. There are lots of little-kids books here for them," Ramirez said. "I think they should keep it open, at least for them."

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