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Battling a Limited Shelf Life

In the midst of a severe budget crunch, a Santa Paula library asks the city for assistance.

October 17, 2003|Suzie St. John | Special to The Times

Dora Crouch cringes at the thought of Santa Paula's only public library closing, but says that is a possibility if the 93-year-old institution doesn't get financial aid soon.

"We're desperate, and if we don't get some help it could happen," said Crouch, president of the Blanchard Community Library Board of Trustees.

With a budget of $463,000 -- $50,000 less than the previous year -- and more cuts possible, the library board last week asked the Santa Paula City Council for help.

During the council's regular meeting, Crouch and district librarian Dan Robles outlined ways the city could aid the troubled library.

The list included having the city take over part of the maintenance for the 22,000-square-foot building at 119 N. 8th St.; providing much-needed paving services for the parking lot, and lending the library a city attorney for legal matters.

After discussing the library board's presentation, the council directed City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to research how the city could help, including the possibility of taking over governance of the library again.

Although the library was supported by the city's general fund when it opened in 1910, that changed when it was moved under the financial umbrella of the town's high school district in 1969.

That affiliation lasted through the mid-1990s when, by mutual agreement, the library became an independent special district, which gets most of its funding from property taxes collected by the state each year.

Councilman Rick Cook said he hoped the council could help but wanted to see how much it would cost first.

"Everyone thinks we have deep pockets, but there are holes in those pockets," Cook said. "The solutions they talked about are just quick fixes. What about in the long run? That's what we need to explore."

Bobkiewicz said he would meet with library officials over the next couple of weeks to get a clearer picture of their needs and report back to the council at its Nov. 3 meeting.

"We have to look at the big-picture approach instead of the Band-Aid approach," Bobkiewicz said.

Adding to the sense of urgency is the possibility that the library may face an additional $12,500 cut in funding from the state's Public Library Foundation.

The problem, Robles said, is that in order to be eligible for that state money, the library must maintain a budget equal to or greater than the previous year's.

"We're in a Catch-22 situation," said Robles, who has headed the library staff for 23 years. "Our budget went down because our state funding was reduced by 50%, but when our budget drops we're not eligible for public funding."

In response to the budget problems, Robles made staffing cuts at the beginning of July and reduced the library's hours from 44 a week to 40. Robles currently is the only full-time employee; the rest of the 20 staff members average eight hours a week.

Robles said he feared that if the council didn't help, he would be forced to make more drastic cuts.

"Studies have shown that when the economy is tight, people use the library even more," Robles said. "But we are in danger of having to severely impact the library's public service hours."

Talk of further cutting hours and services has some library patrons worried.

"I have nine children and we all use the library quite a lot. It's a real cultural center for my family," said 46-year-old Maureen Coughlin. "I'm not sure what we will do if it closes. The library is so loved by the people of Santa Paula."

For Marie Smith and her six children, the library was the first place they went upon moving to Santa Paula two months ago from Atlanta.

"We have already used it as a reference source and for its story time for my younger children," Smith said.

Bobkiewicz said he understood the importance of the library to the town.

"It's an extremely vital asset and the council sees it as the community asset it is," Bobkiewicz said. "I'm pretty hopeful we can find a solution."

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