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Raise Sales Tax to Help Libraries, Study Urges

County: Consultant recommends that a ballot measure be presented to voters next fall. Up to $8 million annually would go to cash-strapped system.

November 09, 1996|TRACY WILSON and HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To salvage Ventura County's woefully underfunded and outdated libraries, the county should place a measure on the November 1997 ballot asking voters to approve a sales-tax increase, a library consultant has recommended.

If approved, the eighth-of-a-cent sales-tax increase would drum up about $8 million each year, funds desperately needed to restore hours and replace antiquated computer equipment at the county's 15 public libraries.

The tax plan was one of a series of recommendations offered in a draft report released Friday by Providence Associates, a Texas-based library consultant hired by the county to evaluate library services.

Although a final report is not expected until next month, the draft offers a preview of what steps the consultant says local officials should take to deal with the county's library crisis.

"I was very excited about it," Supervisor Frank Schillo said after reading the report. "I am no expert on libraries, but they have come up with a number of things that I think are consistent with what we have been talking about."

In addition to the sales-tax increase, the report also recommends dividing the county's 10 cities into special districts and allowing each city to operate its own branches using property tax revenue.

The cities, to be represented on a newly created governing board, would receive supplemental funding raised by a private library foundation.

The report also suggests immediately restructuring and expanding library hours, installing new computer equipment, and weeding out old books from overcrowded shelves so they can be replaced with new materials. The report criticized the libraries for having too few personal computers and limited access to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Although the 50-page report does not identify specific ways to pay for these improvements, its authors suggest that many can be made with the existing budget.

"There is not enough money in the current operating budget of the Ventura County Library Services Agency to totally revamp the system," the report states. "There is, however, enough to offer basic service improvements based on some solid tenets."

Dixie Adeniran, county library director, said she considers the draft report as a step in the right direction.

"It certainly is a report we've waited for with a lot of anticipation," Adeniran said. "With our uncertain financial situation, we've been in a holding pattern far too long."

Adeniran, however, stopped short of endorsing the idea of a sales-tax increase, calling it "interesting."

State budget cuts have dramatically reduced library services in recent years as annual revenues have slipped from $10 million to about $4 million. The Board of Supervisors and local city councils have scrambled to keep libraries open with a variety of stopgap measures.

Government leaders have pinned their hopes on the consultant's report to provide direction and some solutions to the library funding crisis. But some observers said the report simply does not go far enough in answering key questions.

"I think it is a good road map to plan for the future," said Ojai resident George Berg, a member of the Save Our Libraries citizens' group.

But, he added, "I think they told us what anyone who has looked at the situation already knew, which is you need more money to run a good public library system."

Supporters praised the report's idea of restructuring library hours. In Ventura, for instance, current library schedules are so complicated that residents must carry a schedule or commit the random hours to memory.

The draft report lays out an expanded schedule that emphasizes regular hours to correspond conveniently with residents' daily schedules.

Regional libraries, such as Camarillo, Simi Valley and E.P. Foster in Ventura, would be open seven days a week for a total of 63 hours.

Area libraries, such as those in Fillmore, Moorpark, Oak Park, Ojai, Ray D. Prueter in Port Hueneme, and H.P. Wright in Ventura would be open 48 hours, six days a week.

And community libraries, such as the Avenue branch in west Ventura, and the branches in Meiners Oaks, Oak View, Piru, Saticoy and El Rio would open six days for a total of 36 hours.

For Ventura, this would more than double the total library hours.

"I think that as goals, the [proposed] hours are excellent," said Adeniran, adding that she is eager "to hear further how they [the consultant] see the expansion of hours as related to financial resources."

The draft report does not specify how the $8 million in new sales-tax revenue would be distributed.

Many in the county were open to the idea of adding .125 to the Ventura County sales tax, which is now 7.5%, but said more details are needed on how the proposal would work.

"It really depends on what can be sold to the people," Adeniran said.

If a sales-tax increase proves unpopular with voters, the report suggests subsequent ballot measures in each city to establish special property taxes to fund libraries.

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