COLTON AND VENTURA — As tax revenues plummet and desperate local governments struggle to close widening deficits, some are looking for cuts in quieter places long considered off limits, like public libraries.
Last week the city of Colton shut down its three libraries and laid off nearly 60 employees to help plug a $5-million hole in its budget. Moves are afoot to shutter a library in Ventura, and other communities are slashing library hours.
"I've never seen such devastation in libraries," said Jackie Griffin, head of Ventura County's system. She recently returned from a meeting of Southern California library officials where more than half reported having to institute furloughs, layoffs and other austerity measures.
The bad times for libraries are coming just as more people are discovering how useful they can be.
"The demand for Internet access alone is phenomenal," said Barbara Roberts, head of the Palm Springs libraries, which are now closed on Mondays. "There are lines out the door every morning."
The recession has swept in a wave of out-of-work residents looking for online job listings, Internet access to fill out unemployment applications, and help with their resumes.
"You can't keep a DVD on the shelf," she said. "Families can't afford Netflix. And many people don't buy their books anymore -- they use the library."
Kim Bui-Burton, president of the California Library Assn., described conditions as "extraordinarily difficult." Never lavishly funded, libraries started to falter with last year's credit and mortgage disasters. Now, she said, they are being battered by deep state and local cuts.
In Ventura, the H.P. Wright Library is the city's most heavily used branch, Griffin said. But it's one-third the size of the main library downtown and the county can no longer afford to keep it open.
"As of the end of November, there's simply no money to operate it," Griffin said, pointing out that the state's funding for Ventura libraries fell from $1.1 million in 2000 to $149,000 this year. Hit with a property tax decline of 4.5% this year, the county had to cut its financial support as well. Volunteers raised more than $100,000 but it wasn't enough. A sales tax measure was solidly defeated earlier this month.
Los Angeles libraries are in better shape thanks to the passage of large bond measures over the years. Some 17 million people used the libraries over the last year -- an increase of more than 1 million. But there are still fewer books on the shelves, positions have gone unfilled and an early retirement program is in place.
"We haven't been immune from economic realities," said library spokesman Peter Persic.
In San Bernardino County, head librarian Ed Kieczykowski said he was stunned that Colton so swiftly shuttered its libraries.
"I haven't seen a decision like this made so quickly without some sort of vetting process," he said. "We are going to work with Colton to try and get their libraries open. If a community decides that libraries aren't important they will end up shortchanging their citizens."
He said libraries are reducing staff, using more volunteers and having patrons do their own check-outs and fine payments online.
"Next year it will be very, very difficult for us to keep doors open," he said. "If a city council determines libraries aren't important to them, there is nothing we can do."
Colton plans to close the libraries until June 30, 2010. The city has also asked all union employees to accept a 15% pay cut.
More than 100 people showed up at the City Council meeting Monday to argue against the cuts.
"I think it stinks because when a town loses a library, it loses an institution," said Peter Carrasco, a former school principal and chairman of the Colton library board of trustees. "As chairman I wasn't even notified that the library was going to close down. We could have closed one branch, cut hours, opened four days a week. We could have put in different combinations to save money but we never had the opportunity."
Interim City Manager Bob Miller said the financial crisis left the council with no other choice, and he promised to look into ways of reopening the libraries.
"We know we are affecting children and we are impacting families but the budget shortfall was so great that immediate action needed to be taken," he said.
The Colton library saw 160,945 patrons last year at its three branches and received $25,629 in city general funds, Carrasco said. He's received letters of support from the state and national library associations to keep the facilities open.
"I initially felt like resigning when I heard this but now I am going to stay and fight," he said. "I want to get that library open again."