It has been a phenomenal year for Sonoma County’s economy. Joblessness is below 5%, home values are soaring, and the treasury enjoys a record surplus of more than $13.5 million. The recession and cutbacks of four years ago are fading from memory, with one notable exception: Sonoma County Library system, one of the most beloved of public resources, has been left behind.
Sonoma County has a reputation as a progressive community that values education and public space. But despite population growth and ever increasing usage, our 11 major libraries are now open only 40 hours per week, due to a 25% cutback in hours, from 52 hours per week, in 2011. County libraries were open 70 hours a week in 1981, when the area was far less prosperous. This year, Sonoma County will spend just $34 per capita on libraries. That’s half of what Napa and Marin County spend, and barely one-quarter of the $124 per capita that San Francisco spends.
While many other County funding cutbacks that impact far fewer than 100,000 library users have been restored, inflation adjusted funding for libraries has actually fallen by 3% since the unprecedented hour cutback in 2011. County Library Director Brett Lear believes it would cost just $1.2 million to restore Monday hours. “Obviously, additional hours remains an important issue with me and our residents,” Lear said. “Unfortunately, the funding isn’t in place to add hours at this time.”
In June, Sonoma County’s Supervisors plan to vote on a budget for the next fiscal year starting July 1 that will add more than $6 million from the current record surplus to the County’s $40 million “rainy day” reserve fund. Reducing that contribution by just $1.2 million will barely impact the progress to the $60 million that the County eventually wants to keep available for emergencies. But it would reopen all libraries on Mondays, and start to resolve the largest funding crisis in County library history. This seems like a reasonable and urgently needed action for library users, especially parents, grandparents, educators and seniors, who have been experiencing what feels like a “rainy day” of cutback hours for the past four years.
Yet when contacted by the Sonoma Independent during the past month, not one of the five members of our Board of Supervisors, elected to oversee the County’s $1.4 billion budget, has been willing to support allocating reserve or surplus funds to restore library hours.
County Supervisors and their staffers argue that there is no money available to restore library hours because they have more urgent priorities, and that this is not their responsibility because a dedicated parcel tax funds our libraries. As I have reported elsewhere in years past, including this cover story in the Bohemian and this commentary in the Press Democrat, a similar not-my-problem response has been going on for years. One well-informed county employee who did not want to be named explained, “I really am trying to encourage you to think through how misguided asking for the County to pay the (library hours) bill is… All the cities in the Counties have branches. They should all pay in if your assumptions are correct that government should augment the JPA budget.”
The JPA is the Joint Powers Agreement, the understanding between cities and the County as to how the Sonoma County Library system is funded through a dedicated parcel tax. A revision of the JPA, surprisingly, makes it nearly impossible for cities to assist in funding their local libraries. And because of a state law that dictates that a dedicated tax like one for libraries needs a two-thirds majority to pass, while other agencies could pass bonds with a 55% vote, or general taxes with just 50%, last November’s Measure M sales tax for libraries was defeated, despite winning 63.5% of the vote.
Library Commissioners are now considering a new additional parcel or sales tax ballot measure in 2016 to assist the County’s underfunded libraries. Even if successful, this measure would not restore cutback hours for at least two years. Yet the three Commissioners contacted for this article all refused to comment on requesting funds from the Supervisors to alleviate the shortfall in the interim. It seems that everyone in our community, from the Supervisors to Commissioners to tax-paying citizens, feels powerless to even suggest that anything can be done to resolve the cutbacks this year or next.
Yet there is nothing to stop the Board of Supervisors from adding funding for libraries, as the petition on the right side of this page, already signed by hundreds of taxpayers from across the County, suggests they do. Sonoma County’s budget surplus is projected to grow even larger next year. And the Board regularly adds funding from its General Fund for services that dedicated funding is typically pays for, like roads and law enforcement and early education and marketing public health ads on local public radio.
During a recent interview with the Sonoma Independent, Supervisor Susan Gorin, Chair of the Board, explained, “I feel and share your passion for libraries. And yet I don’t know how we’re going to get there. We have a lot of needs. We need to make an ongoing commitment to roads. We need to fund some of the recommendations of the community enforcement task force. We need to make a commitment, I think, to boost wages to $15 per hour, or as far as we can get it.”
Given that library hours have been cut by 25%, I asked Supervisor Gorin whether any services provided by the County to so many citizens (100,000 regular users) had been as severely reduced by the recession—and then not restored during the past few years. She replied, “So many things have not been restored. Staffing levels…the appropriate amount of staff in construction, code enforcement, you name it and it’s had a cutback.”
Dr. Silvano Senn, a Sebastopol dentist and strong library supporter, believes that Supervisor Gorin is “just touting the party line.” He observes that,
“libraries have become our County’s poor stepchild, whom they kick to the curb all the time.”
Senn believes that, “Libraries are so important to any vibrant, growing community. From the standpoint of youth and the aged, it’s a place they can go and learn without any expenditure. To defund libraries is to defund the future. It’s defunding people’s minds, defunding the community that comes together to talk. To not bring them up to par at least is almost an inhumane act.”
Thousands of Sonoma County taxpayers have signed petitions to restore Sonoma county library hours. The most recent petition, from Informing to Empower, the parent non-profit of the Sonoma Independent, has more than 1,100 signatures, and can be signed on the right side of this page. More than 120 signers have added personal appeals and comments to our Supervisors. To give voice to the expression of our community, The Sonoma Independent has created a ‘Citizens Speak Out” feature that gathers more than 120 comments from scores of signature pages and puts them on one web page that can be read here.
Linda Haynes, of Santa Rosa, used the comment section of an earlier petition to argue that supervisors were mis-prioritizing our tax dollars. She wrote,
“Please stop throwing money at the un-winnable fight against marijuana growers, and re-direct those funds toward the public library system. Libraries directly support education and are a vital resource to the community, and they should be funded accordingly.”
As Sonoma Independent’s chart below shows, during the four years since the Monday closures in 2011, the total Sonoma County budget, when adjusted for inflation of 5%, has increased by 16%. During this same period, inflation adjusted library spending decreased by 3%, to $17 million. Meanwhile, despite declining crime rates, inflation-adjusted spending on prisons and probation during the same period (boosted by state prison “realignment” funds) has increased by 23%– more than $26 million annually, to $128 million.
The funding crisis in Sonoma County library history has translated into a 22% reduction in library attendance since 2011, meaning 600,000 fewer visits each year. Monday and evening closures have locked out tens of thousands of patrons: toddlers, teens, parents and seniors who had relied on regular library service. Library visits, with free Internet service, book and DVD lending, in a free, safe working space for all, were high until cutbacks caused them to plummet. Cut back hours have created lines for computer usage, and reduced services for the more than 100,000 citizens who use the libraries.
In the latest petition, Bob Phelps, of Sebastopol, was alarmed by the Supervisor’s inaction. He wrote, “For school children to be prohibited from using library tools, particularly during the week, is an abomination and an indictment of people who fail to support quality education and the resources necessary for kids to achieve and succeed. This is just one of many examples of the failure of our leaders to do the right and logical thing.”
From the City of Sonoma, Kathleen Tugwell, wrote,
“Libraries have been a vital community resource for decades. It is shameful that Sonoma County, with a revenue surplus now and even more next year, is spends so little per capita on funding our libraries. It is within your power to add funding for libraries when dedicated funding fall short. Don’t make excuses. Work for the residents of Sonoma County and provide the needed $1.2 million to restore Monday library hours.”
“There is a saying,” wrote Santa Rosa resident Miriyam Gevirtz. “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. It is an abomination to withhold money from the libraries, one of the few sources of education and solace and ideas in a county rich in greed. Please give us the money to keep our libraries open on Mondays and evenings. Thank you.”
Martin Steiner, also from Santa Rosa, observed, “A Public Library system is one the fundamental superstructures of a modern democracy!! We need it to be open & available more hours, not less!”
“I am an elementary school teacher,” explained Therese Webber from Rohnert Park. “Many of my students do not have access to reference materials, computers and helpful, knowledgable adults, especially after school and in the evenings. It’s so unfair to all of us, and especially these young students, to deny us of such a valuable community service that is more valued, it seems, in neighboring areas than in our own local hometowns! Information and learning should be at the top of the spending list, not the bottom!!!”
Frank Baumgardner, a senior citizen, library supporter and author, researched much of his latest book, Blood Will Tell: Divvying Up Early California from Colonel Juan Bautista De Anza to Jasper O’Farrell, in County libraries. In an email comment, he wrote, “I have a simple request for the Board of Supervisors, one for which there is crying general need: Please allocate at your next meeting or as soon as humanly possible, a moderate outlay of $1.2 million for the Sonoma County Public Library to come from the general fund. As the Library has had to cut its hours for four long years, it sorely needs this money to reopen its doors on Mondays.”
Jonathan Greenberg writer disclosure: I have two young children in Sonoma County who are enthusiastic library users. As the founder of the Campaign to Restore Library Hours, I have helped a grassroots effort for nearly four years to secure funding for the restoration of library hours. This has included articles, commentaries, work on Measure M, two past MoveOn petitions and the current one on this page.