The Los Angeles Public Library system is one of the city's most valuable assets, but its budget is being stretched increasingly thin. Millions of dollars that used to pay for library staff and book purchases now have to be spent on utilities and employee benefits, forcing deep cuts in library services. In response, library supporters have advanced Measure L, which would mandate that more dollars be spent on the library without raising taxes. It's a laudable goal, but it's a bad solution to the difficult budget problems caused by the economic downturn. The Times urges a no vote on Measure L.
Six years ago, the library system completed a 15-year, $334-million building program that more than doubled the total library space citywide. Library officials believed they had enough money to manage their vastly expanded facilities, thanks to a provision in the City Charter that dedicated a certain amount of revenue to their budget. Then the recession hit and the city, scrambling to close its funding gap, required the library system to gradually assume responsibility for its utility bills, pensions, health benefits and other costs that had been borne by other departments.
As a result, hours at the gleaming new buildings were shortened, more than a fourth of the staff was laid off and all of the libraries were shuttered on Sundays and Mondays. It was the first time in 140 years that no city library was open to the public seven days a week. And the situation threatens to get worse as the library is forced to cover millions of dollars in additional "indirect" costs.
Measure L would amend the charter to raise the amount of revenue dedicated to the library over four years, gradually increasing it from about $76 million a year to about $130 million. It would also require the system to continue to gradually assume full responsibility for its indirect costs, which are expected to consume almost all of the additional dollars the library would receive. Still, the change would leave the library with at least as much money for its operations as it had before the downturn, enabling it to keep nine facilities around the city open seven days a week, and allow the rest to be open on six.
We love libraries too, and consider them a core part of a city's responsibility. They help make literate Americans out of rich residents as well as poor ones. In L.A., they are the largest provider of after-school programs, keeping kids off the streets and providing computers and Internet access to those who cannot afford them. We would like to see them well funded and open as close to 24/7 as possible.
The problem with Measure L, though, is that it asks the question about library funding in artificial isolation. Dedicating more money to the library system without increasing overall city revenues means that other functions of city government will have to receive less. In the abstract, cutting library hours seems hard to defend. But what if the alternative is to hire fewer police officers, or to cut gang-intervention efforts, or to make new businesses wait longer for permits, or to close down graffiti-removal programs?
The voters elect a mayor and City Council to make those kinds of choices through a comprehensive annual budget process, adapting their allocations to the city's ever-changing needs and circumstances. Mandatory funding proposals such as Measure L ask voters to make choices about particular programs without knowing how those choices will affect the rest of the budget. That is why The Times opposes them.
Given how small the library's budget is in comparison to the $4.3-billion general fund, the mayor and 13 council members who endorsed Measure L should be able to find a way to meet the library system's needs without being forced to do so by a charter amendment. That's exactly what we hope will happen after voters reject Measure L.