Struggling against a deadline to resolve how best to fund its beleaguered public library system, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Friday against levying a new library tax, opting instead to allocate $22.5 million in disputed general funds to bolster services.
The board's action effectively restores library funding to its 1992-93 levels and will result in the rehiring of hundreds of library workers laid off over the last two years. In addition, county officials hope to return most of the system's 87 libraries to full seven-day-a-week operating schedules and resume regular purchases of books.
The board's decision was a victory for library supporters but failed to resolve the issue of long-term funding for the system. Also, some decried the plan because of conflicting interpretations about the amount of surplus general fund money available.
Supporters of the tax had counted on it to provide a stable, ongoing source of funding. The board left intact its ability to levy a future library tax, but the issue would have to be revisited during next year's budget sessions.
County Librarian Sandra Reuben had mixed emotions about the board's actions.
"Having just received really strong support from the board, I should be jumping in the air," she said. "But I want to get to a position where we don't have to rely on general funds. With the actions (Friday), I can't be quite certain about the future."
The failed tax would have been levied on property owners in unincorporated areas of the county and in 16 cities that had opted to join the assessment district. The annual fee would have cost the average homeowner about $28.50 but could have run as high as several hundred dollars for large commercial or industrial properties.
The board was under the gun to resolve the issue by Friday in order to get 2.5 million tax bills prepared and mailed on time.
The supervisors sought to allay some of Reuben's fears by voting to establish a future annual minimum general fund allocation of $10 million for libraries, with the amount to increase to $20 million if the budget shows a surplus.
But critics said that approach would still leave libraries vulnerable to shifting financial constraints and would hamstring supervisors in meeting other county service needs. Some of the funds allocated Friday to the libraries, for example, had been set aside for public safety needs.
"The money we're giving libraries . . . is a false hope because it doesn't put funding on a secure basis, and it takes away from us valuable resources we may need," said Supervisor Ed Edelman, who was alone in voting against taking the library money from the general fund.
Edelman, who will leave office in December after five terms, said the board's action Friday is a grave error, "one of the greatest since I've been here."
Citing concern about the county's uncertain financial footing, Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed had urged the board to keep the library tax. She argued that the county's budget reserves are far less than what has been calculated by some supervisors and that any unanticipated revenue has been swallowed up in filling 1994-95 budget shortfalls.
In addition, about $600 million in federal health-care reimbursements that the county already included in the budget are in jeopardy because the federal government has yet to decide whether to accept the county's claims for the money.
If the reimbursements fail to materialize, the board may be forced to make sweeping cuts in services, Reed told the board.
But opponents of the library tax disputed Reed's assessment and argued that the board should not increase property taxes without a referendum. Two taxpayer watchdog groups already had filed suit against the county arguing that the tax would be illegal.
"Most taxpayers are saying that this argument about the choice of whether to fund libraries or raise property taxes is nuts," said Kris Vosburgh, executive vice president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. "The county has the money to fund libraries . . . and they should get on to more pressing business."
Supervisor Gloria Molina agreed: "My budget people have looked at it, and I am confident the money is there."
The decision not to levy the library tax, after an hour of public testimony and debate, marked the end of several weeks of sometimes bitter deliberations on library funding, but few involved in the process were completely satisfied with the result.
Edelman, for example, the board's most liberal member and an ardent library supporter, found himself in a philosophical quandary. He eventually voted against the general fund appropriation and sided with conservative Supervisor Mike Antonovich in opposing the majority's decision to keep the assessment district intact for a possible future tax.
Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke voted with the majority to tap the general fund despite grave misgivings about the fairness of using tax money to pay for library services that only some county residents will use.
"It's a political decision," Burke said. "I have no question that it is ill-conceived and unjustified, but we have to live within reality."
The reality facing both Burke and Edelman was the shifting alliances on the board regarding budget issues, with Supervisor Gloria Molina often playing the role of spoiler.
Only six weeks ago, Molina had voted with Burke and Edelman to approve the library assessment. But Molina, a liberal who is generally fiscally conservative, also had requested that the matter be brought back for reconsideration after the county's financial books were closed to determine if the tax would be needed.
Molina went so far as to intervene last month to halt the property tax mailing, contending that officials were trying to sneak through the library tax. On Friday, however, she voted with the majority to keep the tax district in place.