Oakland libraries imperiled by budget cuts
on October 23, 2014
Next summer Oakland could lose as many as six to eight of its libraries, though it’s too soon to tell which branches might end up on the chopping block. Funded partly by the city’s general fund and partly by Measure Q—a parcel tax issued in 2004 to expand library services and add a sixth day of service at all library branches—the Oakland Public Library could face a $2.5-3.5 million deficit in July 2015, nearly a 10% drop in its total budget.
“Cities that have low-funded libraries are generally on the losing end,” Director of Library Services Gerry Garzón said in a recent interview. Garzón, who served as interim director before his appointment last year, inherited the library crisis from former library director Carmen Martinez in 2012. “We provide services for the entire gamut of our residents, starting from our young patrons all the way to our seniors,” Garzón said.
If the library runs out of reserve funds to dip into come next July, the number of closures or other kinds of cuts will depend on how much of the general fund presented by the mayor and passed by council will go toward the library budget. The mayor and city administrator will release the city’s draft budget in April 2015. Kathryn Sterbenc, head of Oakland’s Library Advisory Commission, warns the cuts could be sweeping. “That might mean the actual closure of up to eight branches, or it might mean the closure of three branches and zero dollars to buy any new materials,” Sterbenc said. “Any way you slice it, it’s a catastrophic hit for Oaklanders.”
The Oakland Public Library has 16 branches plus the Main Library, the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), and the Tool Lending Library, each of which serve very different communities. Beyond the standard services, most branches offer free tax advice during tax season. The Main Library and the Elmhurst and Martin Luther King Jr. branches have computer tutors. Ten branches offer “Lawyers in the Library,” a free legal advice program that often has lines out the door; all branches have the “Second Start Literacy Program” for adults; and the list goes on.
“Each library is unique because it takes care of a unique population,” said Ronile Lahti, a member of Friends of the Oakland Public Library (FOPL). “Rockridge has a lovely meeting room. Golden Gate has their jazz concerts. Each one is serving a specific purpose being in that neighborhood.” The library is also a space for groups from knitting clubs to Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils to meet.
On a recent Friday afternoon, library patron Arnold Harris was carefully scanning the wall of DVDs at the West Oakland branch. Harris comes in about every three weeks, he said, to rent a few DVDs at a time. “I consider it a neighborhood asset,” he said. “Blessed to have it.”
Across the room, employees stacked and shelved, while adult patrons typed away at their computer stations. Sitting at a table in the Teen Zone, a high school student watched intently as her tutor marked up her math lesson. The children’s room, decked out in fall decorations and Halloween books, housed a large shelf lined with colorful children’s art projects.
Stephen Newman, library patron and West Oakland native, joined Harris at the DVD shelves to scope out the selection. “The library is really here to educate folks, especially with children, who want to read and want to learn,” Newman said. Closing even one branch, he said, would be a deep loss. “I pray that they don’t, so people can get educated,” Newman said.
Garzón said that though the libraries particularly serve as safe havens for kids from East and West Oakland, branches across the city have bolstered their programs for children and teens. The library’s list of children’s services ranges from storytelling sessions and afterschool homework help to an interactive art program offered in partnership with the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA). Six branches have “Teen Zones” that offer programs like “Ready, Set, Connect,” a workshop designed to prepare teens and young adults for tech careers as well as the Youth Poet Laureate Program. “All of our libraries play an important role in our young people’s lives,” Garzón said. “They are a comfortable and safe place for our teens to kick back, hang out, read and study.”
The library system faced similar challenges in 2011, when funding cuts threatened to shut down 14 branches under “Option A,” one of three draft budget scenarios proposed by Mayor Quan. Instead, concessions from the unions helped the city reach the minimum-funding threshold that is written into Measure Q, which requires that the city contribute at least $9.1 million from the general fund each year in order for the parcel tax to be collected. So all the branches stayed open that year. “Library funding has been tenuous for a long time,” said Helen Bloch, a founder of the Save Oakland Libraries coalition. “For the last four years we’ve been right at the minimum funding.”
In the first year of its adoption, Measure Q and the City’s general fund split library funding equally. But since then, Measure Q’s financial support of the library has risen, such that the parcel tax now (FY 2014-15) provides 65 percent of the library’s budget, while the City’s general fund provides 35 percent. Garzón said the recession impacted nearly every city service in addition to the library: Oakland reduced funding to park maintenance, technology, graffiti abatement, Rec Centers, cultural arts programs, street repairs, sidewalk maintenance, tree trimming, illegal dumping response, and more. He said virtually every city service has been affected.
“We would love to see the city officially recognize the public library as the essential, core service it is, and to fund it accordingly,” Sterbenc said. “The cost of providing library services has increased in the past ten years, but the city hasn’t kept pace with it.”
Sterbenc was appointed in 2011 to the Library Advisory Commission, a volunteer 15-seat body created to ensure the library spends Measure Q funds where it should, and was elected chairperson in 2012. When she heard about the 14 suggested branch closures under Option A in 2011—under that plan, only Main, 81st Avenue, Dimond, and Rockridge would stay open—she participated in a mock funeral, carrying a coffin full of books through the First Friday crowd to get people thinking about the budget crisis. “We cannot bake-sale our way out of this,” she said. “We need the city to protect the library’s current level of funding.”
The yearly cost of running a small branch library in Oakland is approximately $450,000-$550,000, most of which is personnel costs. Other costs include internal service funds for facilities and utilities, and collections. If branches do close next summer, employees could face layoffs. The first step in bridging the gap came this past June, when the city council voted to set aside a $500,000 “down payment” from the year’s budget surplus for the library’s 2015-2016 deficit. Though that’s a good start, library supporters say, it’s not nearly enough. Earlier this month, seven of the city’s mayoral candidates weighed in on library funding at the Temple Sinai mayoral candidate forum.
Rebecca Kaplan said she voted in June to set aside that $500,000 of surplus money. Quan said she put language in the June budget amendment placing the half-million into the library’s Reserve Fund. Courtney Ruby said the library is critical to making Oakland a safer city. Bryan Parker said the library is key in addressing the growing “digital divide” in Oakland. Libby Schaaf, Dan Siegel and Joe Tuman also said they would support fully funding the library as mayor.
According to the American Library Association, 62 percent of U.S. libraries report being the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Sterbenc said that though the use of library programs is strong throughout the city, the need for Internet access and childhood literacy support is greater in low-income neighborhoods.
According to figures submitted the California State Library in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, 2.2 million people visited Oakland’s libraries. The total circulation of books reached 2.7 million and of that, 1 million books were placed in the hands of children. That year the library offered 5,200 programs for children, adults and young adults. 163,000 patrons attended these programs.
Back by the West Oakland branch DVD wall, Newman considered picking up Dangerous Minds and Blue Blood for that week’s rentals. “See, I’m a 1950’s baby – so a lot of things that happen nowadays weren’t happening when I was growing up,” he said. “These days it’s like they want to cut schools out. They want to cut out libraries.” Newman paused for a moment and shrugged his shoulders. “How’re they going to learn?”
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