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L.A.'s library cuts don't add up

An accountant becomes an activist, looking for money in the city's budget and finding his voice.

July 03, 2010|Sandy Banks

David Meyer is an accountant, not an activist.

His last political protest — a takeover of the administration building at the University of Cincinnati — was 40 years ago, sandwiched between a Grateful Dead concert and a Ken Kesey symposium on creativity.

But there he was on Wednesday at Los Angeles City Hall, protesting city budget cuts and trying to convince council members that millions in uncounted revenue had slipped by budget gurus — enough to pay the salaries of pink-slipped employees at the city's libraries.

Meyer had spent weeks combing through financial reports and buttonholing bureaucrats, trying to figure out why projected parking revenue didn't seem to include this year's parking fee increases.

Two weeks ago, he took his questions to a City Council meeting — the first he had ever attended — and embarrassed himself by rambling.

This time he wrote out a speech and practiced, using the timer on his watch, to get it under the limit for public comment. He wore a suit so council members "would pay attention to me," he said. He introduced himself as "an enrolled agent with the Department of the Treasury."

Everyone seemed to be listening. A few council members took notes. Tom LaBonge even thanked him for coming to talk about the "library thing."

But nothing changed with the "library thing."

On Thursday, more than a hundred librarians lost their jobs — along with dozens of other city employees.

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In this year of shortfalls and cutbacks, libraries have taken some of the hardest hits. Eight regional libraries began closing on Sundays earlier this year. Last month, hours at the city's 73 neighborhood branches were cut back a day, to five days a week, starting July 18.

Council members are considering placing a $30-million tax measure on the November ballot. It would cost property owners an extra $39 annually — about what I paid in late fees on library books last year. And it would let neighborhood libraries stay open six days again.

But it wouldn't bring back the librarians who were laid off or forced into retirement.

That's what rankles Meyer. He still remembers Mrs. Hawk, the Hamilton, Ohio, librarian who — along with Dick and Jane and their dog Spot — taught him, as a 4-year-old, to read.

"The library was a place where you could ask any question, and they would talk to you and never make you feel stupid," he said.

For him, it still is. Meyer visits his local library — the landmark John C. Fremont branch in Hollywood — every week. And two days a month he holes up in the Central Library downtown, recording military veterans' memories.

I'll tell you about that project in Sunday's column. For now, it's enough to know that Meyer's passion for libraries goes beyond buildings and books, to the people who make the enterprise breathe.

When he saw those people packing up — the clerks who always made time to chat, the sorters who kept the shelves neatly stacked, given 15 minutes to get their things and clear out — he donned his auditor's hat.

"Everybody was talking about cutting. We had to let them go because we didn't have money," Meyer said. "So I figured I'd look at the revenue end. If I could find revenue that had been missed, that might help keep the libraries open. And my friends could keep their jobs."

His tax clients were always trying to write off their parking tickets, so he started with parking fees.

I won't take you through all his machinations — the public files and private conversations, the spreadsheets and line items. Meyer walked me through that financial safari; it left my eyes glazed and my head pounding.

He was sure he'd discovered a hidden pot of uncounted money because parking fees received and projected didn't add up. But every place he looked yielded a different set of numbers.

Ultimately, what he really discovered is just how indecipherable and unresponsive the city's budget process is.

And how pointless it is to look for nickels and dimes in city that let $260 million in revenue go uncollected last year — most of it unpaid parking tickets.

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Meyer's still not convinced there's not enough money for librarians. But he knows it's hard for Joe Q. Public to prove.

Maybe armies of number-crunchers missed a multimillion-dollar discrepancy. Maybe the mayor is employing a little sleight of hand, socking it away so we look flush next year. Or maybe librarians just lose out to police and firefighters when it's time for belt-tightening.

"It's an old accountant's trick," said Meyer — an old accountant. "I say 'We have to cut the fire department or the library.' The fire department always wins."

"Or I say 'I don't have anything in this pocket.' You say 'What's that bulge in the other pocket?' And I say 'But we're talking about this pocket.' You can't win."

One of the city's pockets is empty, he said, but the other one seems to be bulging with understated parking fine revenue.

"The mayor's budget is like 200 pages of stuff," Meyer said. And next year, if the libraries are on the chopping block again, he'll be ready to go through it line by line.

Meyer doesn't regret his odyssey. He learned that city officials can be pretty nice, even when they don't know very much. He learned that nothing is as easy as it looks when it comes to money and government. He learned that being an activist can mean sounding like a crank and feeling like a fool.

And he realized that protesting doesn't have to mean shouting matches and picket signs.

"If people would just stand and ask questions — in a polite way, but don't move — that might really make a difference…," he said. "The little power we do have is enough to call attention to a problem, if we use it."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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