Cyclists at Ogawa Plaza got more than free pancakes, bike repairs and goodie bags at this year’s East Bay Bike to Work Day. Over a loudspeaker in front of City Hall, a couple of Oakland librarians had something else to share with them. “I went walking, what did you see? I saw a brown horse looking at me,” Amy Martin said as she stood in front of City Hall and read aloud from a giant children’s book.
Nearby, children sat in parents’ laps, clapping and reading along with the book, I Went Walking, and enjoying the impromptu session of story hour. But this story did not end with a happily ever after. Instead, after finishing the book for her young audience, Martin, a children’s librarian at Oakland’s main branch, delivered news of a public library system in peril—telling her listeners that 13 of the city’s 17 library branches may be closed come June. The audience booed and, following Martin’s lead, began to chant “No cuts to libraries!”
A $56 million budget deficit hovering over Oakland means public services like libraries face an uncertain future. In the most extreme budget cut scenario proposed by Mayor Jean Quan, the library system, which currently receives 2 percent of the city’s General Fund, is being threatened with a 60 percent cut—the largest compared to other city budget departments. The cuts would trigger a further loss of funding from the Measure Q parcel tax, creating a potential 85 percent loss in funding for the library system.
A few weeks ago, Mayor Quan announced three budget options for bridging the city’s budget gap. Option A, the most extreme of the three, would reduce the library budget by 85 percent, resulting in little to no funding for programs, class visits, story hours, collections, facilities support, and technology maintenance. This option assumes no new sources of revenue or contributions from employees.
Option B is more of a middle ground scenario, which includes employee concessions, while Option C has the fewest service cuts and layoffs, but requires a special election in June for residents to vote on an $80 parcel tax that would be used to fund libraries and other public services.
Option A, the all-cuts budget proposal, recommends that four libraries remain open: the Main Library, as well as the 81st Avenue, Dimond, and Rockridge branches. For the most part, these are the hub libraries that are in the busiest, and wealthiest, neighborhoods of Oakland.
“What you have left out is West Oakland and the vast majority of East Oakland,” said Martin, speaking as an Oakland resident and not a library spokeperson. “It’s nightmarish to us in the library. … We’ve worked so hard to provide materials for people who are in the poorest communities.”
For example, the Caesar Chavez branch would be one of the libraries slated to close. The entirely Spanish-language branch is in the middle of the Fruitvale neighborhood and currently offers ESL classes and other services that specifically serve people with language barriers.
Even with the four branches that would remain with Option A, Martin said there’d be a major lack of services. In the all-cuts budget proposal, the main library would be budgeted to have four full-time staff working in a three-story building. Martin said this means they would barely be able to open the front door, let alone continue providing classes and programs for patrons.
The budget for repairing computers and purchasing new materials like books and DVDs would also be eliminated. “There wouldn’t be anything left,” Martin said. “We’d have open doors with broken computers.”
The library currently receives its funding primarily from two sources: the City of Oakland’s General Fund and Measure Q, a dedicated $14 million library parcel tax passed by voters in 2004. Under Measure Q, the city may collect the parcel tax only if it authorizes General Fund support of at least $9 million per year—that means the city can no longer collect the parcel tax money if library funding falls below the required threshold.
The city council could propose that voters amend Measure Q, removing the matching funds requirement from the city so that that the library can continue to collect those funds. But doing so would require a special election.
Martin said the library needs a more dedicated funding source from the city. “It can feel like the hard work you put in is not being recognized by city council,” Martin said, “and that they’re not understanding what we’re trying to do, which is raise good citizens for Oakland.”
At this morning’s story hour, Martin and the other librarians encouraged onlookers to show support for libraries by attending the City Council Budget Hearing at City Hall Council Chambers tonight at 5:30 pm.
For more information about which library branches and services are at risk for closure, visit saveoaklandlibrary.org