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Our View: The city should take over the SCV’s libraries

Posted: July 31, 2010 7:26 p.m.
Updated: August 1, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Glendale. Pasadena. Long Beach. Los Angeles. Those and 36 other cities in Los Angeles County have their own library systems.

Santa Clarita officials want to join their ranks by taking over our three county-run libraries so they an expand hours and provide better service to SCV residents.

As they should.

It’s simple math.

Through two dedicated assessments, city and county taxpayers in this valley contribute $8.5 million annually to the county library system and get back only $6 million in services.

In fact, by the county’s own reckoning, city taxpayers in Santa Clarita pay 100 percent of the cost of operating the Valencia, Canyon Country and Newhall libraries, and then some — even though unincorporated SCV residents use the three libraries, too.

Stated differently, city residents are subsidizing the library costs for the entire SCV. In calculating the costs of the three libraries — $6.07 million in fiscal year 2008/09 — the county offsets those costs only with the tax revenues generated within the city, which were $6.49 million in fiscal year 2008/09.

Wait a minute. Didn’t you just say unincorporated SCV residents pay library taxes, too?

Yes, we did, and they do. By the city’s calculations, unincorporated residents contributed $2.2 million to the county library system in fiscal year 2008/09.

If the county didn’t put that money into the Valencia, Canyon Country and Newhall libraries, where did the money go?

Not here. It went straight south.

The county used the $2.2 million from unincorporated SCV taxpayers to subsidize library services in other places — places like the city of Bell, where the library system ran a $418,000 deficit while the city manager was pulling down $800,000 a year.

And Bell was at the low end of the blood-loss scale.

The county-run libraries in Montebello and Norwalk ran more than $2 million in the red — per city. In all, the county library system ran a $32 million deficit in fiscal year 2008/09.

In fact, of the 48 cities that participate in the county library system, only five showed a profit.

They were Malibu, Manhattan Beach, West Hollywood, Hermosa Beach — and Santa Clarita.

That’s right. Even with only 177,000 people paying for library service to all 250,000 SCV residents, Santa Clarita taxpayers still paid more than enough.

What do all of the numbers mean?

They mean that we SCV residents are getting about two-thirds of what we’re paying for.

What is the procedure for the city to take over the libraries?

It’s simple and straightforward. Under state law, all it takes is a City Council vote to break from the county library system.

If the vote takes place before Dec. 2 in any given year, we have a city library system the following July 1.

The city already owns the Canyon Country library building, and it is constructing a new city-owned Newhall library.

Under state law, the county would have to offer the Valencia library building to the city at fair market value — and the city could bond against future library taxes for its purchase.

What would happen to the unincorporated SCV residents’ library tax money if the city takes over our libraries?

It depends.

The county recently opened a small storefront library in a Castaic shopping center. A fraction of the unincorporated SCV residents’ $2.2 million library taxes would need to support it.

By comparison, the current Newhall library costs $1 million per year to operate, Canyon Country $1.5 million and Valencia $3.5 million. The Castaic storefront library is smaller and less costly than Newhall.

That leaves the balance of the $2.2 million to consider.

It could go one of two ways.

The county Board of Supervisors could decide to contribute the unincorporated SCV residents’ library taxes to the Santa Clarita library system in return for the city of Santa Clarita providing equal service to all SCV residents.

Or the supervisors could continue to spend the unincorporated SCV residents’ money in places like Bell, in which case the city would need to check residency papers at the door and charge county residents a fee.

City officials’ preference — and ours — is for all of the money that’s generated in the SCV to stay in the SCV, and for everybody to be treated equally.

How would the operating costs compare if the county has all of the experience in running libraries and the city doesn’t?

It’s true, the county has experience in running libraries. So do 40 cities in Los Angeles County. They all were inexperienced when they started.

Santa Clarita is the biggest city in Los Angeles County not to have its own library system.

The real answer lies in operating overhead and staffing costs.

For instance, at the Valencia Library alone, the county spent $1.57 million on salaries and benefits in fiscal year 2008/09, $400,000 on administration and $55,000 on a “countywide overhead charge,” among other things.

The city doesn’t have to manage a countywide library system that’s leaking money like a sieve.

The city estimates that by using city employees, it could operate the three libraries for $5.05 million a year — versus the current $6.07 million.

If the city hired a contractor to run the libraries, it would cost even less, primarily because private contractors don’t pay government benefits.

Contractors don’t have to pay into the public employee retirement system that is bankrupting the state of California.

The city estimates that our libraries, if operated by a contractor, would cost only $3.8 million per year.

Isn’t “privatizing” our libraries a bad thing?

Hiring a contractor is not “privatizing” the libraries. They would still be city libraries. The city still would be in control.

There are professional library-service contractors that run libraries for cities and counties all over the country.

They’ve got the experience to provide top-rate service without the state pension obligations that drive up costs.

The city already contracts with professional firms to provide an array of municipal services, from trash pickup to bus service and public television operations.

Isn’t there an advantage to staying in the county library system, since you can order books from other libraries?

Sure. The county librarians do a great job and it’s nice to be able to order books from other libraries in the system.

But patrons of city libraries in Los Angeles County have the same advantage. A Santa Clarita library system would join the Southern California Library Cooperative, enabling patrons to borrow books from other libraries — and even from libraries outside Los Angeles County.

It was peculiar to hear the county librarian disparage the cooperative the other day, considering that she is a member of its executive board.

Then again, it isn’t so strange when you consider that she must view Santa Clarita as a cash cow.

Why now? What is the urgency?

The city is building a brand-new library in Newhall that will rival the Valencia Library in size and operating cost.

The trouble is, the county has indicated to the city that it won’t pay to operate a $3.5 million-a-year library in Newhall, where it’s currently spending only $1 million — even though the $8.5 million that we SCV taxpayers are collectively contributing is enough to do it.

If the county were to provide more than $1 million in annual service in Newhall, it would likely cut service in Canyon Country and Valencia and it still wouldn’t provide full service in Newhall.

That is unacceptable.

If the city establishes its own library system, it will add business hours in Canyon Country and Valencia on Day One.

And if nothing else were to change, if the city used the operating efficiencies of an experienced contractor, it could pay to provide full service at Valencia, Canyon Country and the new library in Newhall, with city taxpayers’ library dollars alone.

The city has no choice. At its Aug. 24 meeting — at least, prior to Dec. 2 — the City Council should vote to break from the county library system and create its own.


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