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COVER STORY : Taking Libraries Off the Shelf : Threat of More Budget Cutbacks Spurs Book Lovers Into Taking Action

March 31, 1994|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The architect, the printer, the librarian and eight others trickle into the Altadena home and sit around a pine table for a campaign strategy session.

The talk is of fund-raising letters, campaign mailers, endorsements--the elements of a successful campaign. The candidate: the local library.

Fearing that budget cuts will decimate their library, the Altadena activists are gearing up a campaign to persuade voters to pass a library tax June 7.

"I want my 8 1/2-month-old to be able to go to the library like I used to," said Reynolds Cafferata, 27, chairman of the Save-Our-Altadena-Library committee.

The Altadena activists are part of a wave of San Gabriel Valley book lovers who are going on the offensive to save their libraries. They are drawing their inspiration from neighboring Pasadena, where voters overwhelmingly approved a tax last year to keep their library system from being gutted.

Along with Altadena, residents of South Pasadena have launched a similar campaign. The South Pasadena Library, which will celebrate its centennial next year, will have to close three days a week if local voters reject the proposed tax. It currently operates seven days per week.

"There's no other institution which does things for all the people," said Jan Wetzel, 66, a retired business executive who chairs the Committee to Protect Our Library. "That's true whether you're young or old, well-educated, self-educated, rich or poor. The library serves all those people."

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Four other cities, which are served by the financially battered county library system, have dipped into municipal coffers to prop up services until the end of June.

* The Walnut City Council decided to spend $102,200 to open its branch library three additional days a week, for a total of five days of service.

"That's a basic service as far as I'm concerned," said Walnut Councilman H. Thomas Sykes, who strongly supported the bailout. "We really do need the library open, especially with some of the school districts cutting back on staffing in their libraries."

* The Diamond Bar City Council voted to spend $70,000 to add a fourth and fifth day of weekly service and to buy more books.

* Duarte council members decided to spend $16,000 for a third day of weekly service.

* El Monte officials are spending $9,000 for books and materials for their branch library.

Meanwhile, in San Dimas, Claremont and La Verne, officials and residents have formed committees to investigate how their county library branches can be kept open more days.

Library funding has even become a campaign issue in La Verne, where city officials recently decided against spending money on the county library. A candidate for City Council is running on a platform of using local tax money to increase library services.

Such actions across the San Gabriel Valley have raised the hopes of library patrons, who have watched in dismay as political events outside their control have resulted in the diminution of library services.

In 1993--for the second straight year--state legislators balanced California's budget by taking property-tax money that would have gone to counties, cities and special districts. As a result, library directors must stand in line to secure the scarce tax dollars that do make it to local governments.

"California public library services continue to deteriorate as local jurisdictions withdraw increasing amounts of funding from libraries to bolster police, fire and other safety service," according to a recently released report by the California State Library, a state agency that, among other things, administers grants to improve library services in California.

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California ranks at the bottom nationwide in per capita public library hours, the report said. California offers just 72 hours per 1,000 people, while first-place Vermont provides 379 hours per 1,000 people.

Thirteen cities in the San Gabriel Valley run their own libraries. Most of those municipal libraries have been able to get by, trimming book budgets and making spending cuts in behind-the-scenes operations while largely maintaining hours and services.

In the tax-rich city of Irwindale, library service actually increased last year by 20 hours a week.

But in some cases, municipally financed libraries have suffered.

Before its library tax passed, Pasadena had cut weekly hours at its main library from 70 to 46. Hours at the city's eight branch libraries fell from 40 to 32 per week.

Alhambra closed a library branch and Monterey Park cut Saturday service. The library in Covina was one of the hardest hit. Covina officials slashed library operations from six to four days a week and have no plans to restore the hours.

But Covina is flourishing compared to some local branches of the huge Los Angeles County Library, with a budget that has fallen during the past two years from $64 million to $47.6 million.

During that period, nine library branches were closed, including three in the San Gabriel Valley.

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