At our county domes on Fulweiler Street, a Placer County citizen recently made a public appeal to save the Meadow Vista library, which was being threatened with closure. A supervisor replied to the plea by explaining how more funding to libraries would mean less funding to other services in the county. The money would just move from one program to the other shifting the problem. The answer was simple to understand and hard to argue with unless one had a detailed understanding of the Placer County budget.
Our budget is 4 inches thick when printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper. This simple answer, however, did not respect the complexity of county funding programs. Assuming constituents do not understand the details of the budget and interrelations of services is a safe bet.
Funding models used by local libraries in other counties are a simpler illustration to understand and discover ways to overcome underfunded libraries. What follows is information on the Nevada County libraries as a point of comparison for our own county.
In 1996, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors voted to cut library funding by 50%. The following year’s budget proposed an additional 20% reduction. Most professional librarian positions were eliminated. Children’s programs and school visits were halted. The three circulating library branches in the system reduced the hours they were open to the public to less than 28 a week. The Doris Foley Library, a research branch, was staffed entirely by volunteers.
Nevada County has strong grassroots support for libraries. Much of the county is rural and still use dial up to access the internet. Libraries are a good place to go for getting online and accessing information that more urban areas take for granted. Nevada County also values education, as evidenced by their support of a Sierra College campus in Grass Valley. Two Friends of the Library groups, one on each side of Donner Pass, augment their funds. The Friends of the Library groups are non-profit fundraisers and supporters of library services.
By 1998, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors placed Measure B on the ballot proposing a 1/8 cent sales tax increase to be dedicated to library services and materials for 5 years. The measure passed.
In 2002, with Measure B slated to expire in 2003, Measure C appeared on the Nevada County ballot proposing an extension. With 77% voter approval and passage in every district, Nevada County voters renewed the 1/8 cent sales tax; this time for fifteen years. Measure C also established a citizen oversight committee to ensure that sales tax funds were allocated to the Library and that funds were spent equitably.
Enactment of these ballot measures increased the Nevada County library budget from $500 thousand to $2.8 million. The increased funding resulted in more than twice as many paid library employees and more than doubled the hours libraries were open to the public. Two new station branches – open for limited hours and limited to basic services – were also opened.
Nevada County applies for and receives grants every year from the Northern Sierra Air Quality District. Vehicle licensing fee funding (AB 2766) is distributed to groups designing services to reduce air pollution from vehicles. In the past few years, the Library in our neighboring county has received funding through this program for eBooks and downloadable audio books; lending kiosks (like vending machines for books); and a project to redesign their website and enhance their online offerings.
Placer County can learn important lessons from Nevada County’s library recovery, and apply that knowledge to many budget items in addition to the libraries. Use of the logic that funds shifted to libraries would be detrimental to services in another area of the budget is simplistic. That type of attitude ignores the interrelation of services. For example, there is a direct correlation between literacy and crime. There is also a direct positive impact made by library services on mental health, homelessness and child development. Through a program supported by the Placer County Friends of the Library, ten inmates in Placer County jail are currently being taught to read. The expectation is that it may lower incarceration and law enforcement costs.
Placer County is a charter county, enabling more flexibility and control than a traditional county such as Nevada. We have the right environment for the creative and holistic thinking required to solve the hard problems.