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Piedmont one step closer to new Oakland library contract

on April 20, 2011

With no public libraries of its own, Piedmont depends on Oakland for its books—not to mention its groceries, and access to the outside world. But the most recent contract granting Piedmonters access to Oakland’s libraries expired in 2008, and representatives of the two cities have been negotiating a new contract ever since. Though a long-term agreement is still far off, this week officials did manage to settle on one thing: a price for last year’s service.

After two years of debate, Piedmont will pay Oakland $350,471 for its residents’ library use over the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the same amount it was paying under the old contract. Piedmont Mayor Dean Barbieri said that Piedmont has been prepared to pay this amount from the start. “We’ve always been willing to pay it,” he said. “Oakland just wasn’t willing to take it.”

Oakland officials initially asked for an increase to $395,000, but in the swirl of shifting demographics and a sinking economy, Piedmont’s leaders balked at the request.

While those leaders acknowledged that the Oakland library system faces rising costs—notably including higher rent on the library’s Piedmont Avenue Branch, less than a mile from Piedmont itself—they have insisted that, in light of the toll the recent recession has taken on the city, it is unable to pay Oakland more than it has in the past.

“No matter how strongly you like any particular service, there’s a limit to what we can afford to pay,” Piedmont City Administrator Geoffrey Grote said at Monday’s Piedmont City Council meeting. “And just as we’re not giving our police officers, or our fire fighters, or our planners a raise, how much of a raise can we give the Oakland library?”

Such belt-tightening has been common in recent years, but some Oaklanders believe Piedmont could find the money if it wanted to. When the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month that Piedmont had “decided—for now, anyway—to stop paying Oakland for library services” (a claim Piedmont officials say misrepresents their position), the city was accused of selfishness.

“I think it’s unconscionable for a city as wealthy as Piedmont to do this,” Oakland City Councilmember Jane Brunner, who represents one of the four districts bordering Piedmont, told the Chronicle in March. “It is not acceptable.”

Piedmont’s median household income of $165,903 is more than three times that of Oakland’s (based on 2009 figures, the most recent available). Tapping that wealth would be easier, Grote said at Monday’s council meeting, if Piedmonters paid a dedicated library tax, as Oaklanders do, in addition to the funding drawn from each city’s general fund.

But personal income is not the statistic at the forefront of some Piedmont leaders’ minds. At the council meeting, Grote pointed out that Emeryville, which also contracts with Oakland for library services, pays just $102,500 each year.

“That is far less than a third of the $350,000 that we’ve always had on the table,” he said.

Though Emeryville’s population until recently was much lower than Piedmont’s, over the last decade it has grown to almost the same size, around 10,000 people.

Recently, talk of a new contract has been slowed by miscommunication. On April 15, Grote received two contradictory documents from Oakland Interim City Auditor Lamont Ewell. One repeated Oakland’s longstanding request for $395,000, while a separate invoice billed the city for $350,471 in an apparent concession. Though it was not immediately apparent which document was correct, officials have since agreed on the lower rate for the previous year.

Furthermore, the fate of the Oakland Library’s Piedmont Avenue Branch, the branch nearest the city of Piedmont, is uncertain. Due to a drastic increase in rent—from just $1 a year to $4,000 per month—the branch will vacate its current location when its lease expires in November. Piedmont Mayor Barbieri said he was hesitant to raise the burden on Piedmont taxpayers as nearby facilities stand to disappear. “From everything we have heard,” he said, “Oakland has not been able to strike an agreement with the owner of the land, so the owner is closing it.”

Oakland Public Library Director Carmen Martinez acknowledged the potential gap in service, but said that the library is considering several alternative locations. “I don’t know if it will be on Piedmont Avenue, but it will certainly be close by.”

Besides, Martinez said, Piedmonters also make frequent use of nearby branches that will remain open without interruption, including those in Rockridge and Montclair.

Martinez also stressed the strong ties between the library and its Piedmont visitors. “We value our Piedmont neighbors,” she said. “Many of our donors, our volunteers, our tutors, all come from Piedmont.”

At Monday’s City Council meeting in Piedmont, several of those neighbors returned the sentiment. “Many of us here in Piedmont hope that we do not get this reputation as a town that is not willing to pay for a service rendered,” said Tam Hege, president of the League of Women Voters of Piedmont. “As a responsible member of the Bay Area community, Piedmont should pay its fair share for quality library services.”

While Oakland and Piedmont have yet to reach a long-term agreement, and in spite of some controversy in the local press, Piedmont residents continue to freely visit the library, and librarians are unlikely to begin enforcing strict residency checks on patrons. When asked how she thought this debate might end, library director Martinez didn’t seem worried.

“I’m a little bit surprised that people are getting so excited about it,” she said.

Image: Photo courtesy of CCAC North Library via Flickr.


  1. denise simard on April 21, 2011 at 7:09 am

    Oh, Piedmont, get over it. $500k wouldn’t be unreasonable. I’d also wager that Piedmont residents use the library 2x more than Emeryville residents.

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