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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : A STACK OF WOES : Budget Problems Have Hit County Library Branches Hard, Closing Many and Restricting Hours at Others. The Cutbacks Are Especially Felt by Children, Whose Access to a World of Books and Imagination Is Limited.


On the counter of the Huntington Park library, a small printed sign on a plastic water jug beckons to patrons: "Every penny counts. Cada centavo cuenta. " The jar is about one-quarter full, with several dollar bills but mostly loose change and a few rolls of pennies.

That's the extent of the fund raising at this county library branch. If the staff is thrifty, they'll be able to buy a few new bestsellers that patrons have been clamoring for.

Several miles away in Watts, employees of Los Angeles' Watts branch wait it out in a small, cramped building overflowing with books, videotapes and computers while construction continues on their new $2.8-million library due to open in the fall of 1995.

Such is the feast-or-famine world of community libraries.

A branch's quality--perhaps its very existence--can depend more upon which system it belongs to and how much private support it garners than on how badly the community might need its services.

People who live in Los Angeles enjoy a city library system that, one way or another, has been finding enough cash of late to improve or construct buildings, buy materials and fill long-vacant positions. Yet residents of nearby cities and unincorporated areas find their county system's branches struggling to stay open, let alone buy new books.

"The public keeps coming in and asking, 'Do you have bestsellers?' And I say 'What bestsellers? We haven't bought bestsellers in two years,' " said Alfredo Zuniga, library manager of the county's Anthony Quinn branch on the Eastside.

The city's 63-branch system has an operating budget of $36.7 million this fiscal year, an increase of almost 7% over last, but the county's 87-branch system has a budget of $47.6 million, down 26% from the previous fiscal year's $64.5 million.

Library experts say the result is more than some inconvenienced book-lovers. Because children using local libraries to prepare homework assignments become exposed to literature there, library financial problems could affect the literacy of future generations.

"In minority areas, especially, you already have some children who are reading below their (grade) level--but at least they could get in the library after school and get a book," said Lydia Hammons, manager of the county's Willowbrook library. With dwindling operating hours and a declining inventory, that opportunity has become more limited.

The Willowbrook branch is almost hidden in the Kenneth Hahn Plaza, behind a key shop and a toy store. The magazine shelves have as many empty spaces as they do magazines. And the book selection is sometimes sparse. With two elementary schools within blocks of the branch, classes used to visit daily before the major budget cutbacks two years ago.

"With the library only being open two days a week we probably lose kids," Hammons said.

Mayra Jacinto, 10, used to go to her local Huntington Park library every afternoon for story time, but not since the library has been closing on Thursday and Fridays. "So I stay inside a lot, because it's boring outside," she said.

On the days the library is open, Mayra is busy dusting bookshelves, sweeping the rugs and putting up posters as a summer junior volunteer worker.

Mayra's volunteer work at the Huntington Park branch would happen whether or not the county library system was having financial difficulties, said children's librarian Karen D. Holmes. But the reduction of staff has created a need for more adult volunteers to take over a few extra duties. "It feels like our staff has just been wiped out and we just creep along by whatever means we can," she said.

The county branches are victims of an $11-million library department budget shortfall that shows no signs of abating.

"This is the worst it's been (for the county libraries)," said David Flint, assistant director for finance and planning with the County of Los Angeles Public Libraries. "We were the most severely impacted libraries in the state--both in dollar amount and percentage of our whole budget."

The county library district closed 10 branches in fiscal 1992-93 because of budget cuts, bringing the system down to 87 branches. Since last year's round of budget cuts, the system has laid off 370 full- and part-time workers, cut service hours by 65% and halted all purchases of new books, magazines and tapes. More than half of the libraries are only open two days a week, and seven of them are in Central and South Los Angeles and the Southeast cities.

All this finds the East Los Angeles, View Park and Willowbrook branches and the libraries in Bell and Huntington Park hoping their bad situation doesn't become worse.

"We're considered nonessential services--jails are more important than libraries," Holmes said. "But, really, libraries are more important than jails. We keep people out of jail. We give them books for free and they bring them back. I'd say that's a pretty important resource, wouldn't you?"

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