at county libraries
Wednesday, January 01, 2003 - OAKLAND -- When Carmen Martinez came to Oakland in October 2000 as the city's new library director, she was faced with the happy task of deciding how to spend a stout surplus.
Two years later, the library's surplus has turned into a deficit of almost $1 million, thanks to budget predicaments brought on by a sluggish economy and impending state cuts.
"The first year, we had $2.5 million to play with," Martinez said. "This year will be very different."
As libraries throughout the nation close doors, raise late fees or cut staffing, libraries throughout Alameda County are facing their own budget battles. The impending cuts provide libraries with an odd paradox: In rough economic times, libraries are forced to slice services and hours even as more people look to libraries for free benefits such as books and Internet use.
"The injustice of it is, here we are providing more service with the same staff, and we're asked to cut our budgets," said Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association.
Although spending plans will take shape in coming months, local libraries are already creating plans to cut costs.
Oakland, for one, is talking about trimming positions that have remained vacant -- 15 in all, Martinez said. The library has a total 506 part-time and full-time staff positions.
"We're just looking at everything at this point," Martinez said.
She said the city's system of 16 libraries will look to stay away from staff layoffs in favor of shorter hours and reorganizing the way the system is operated. Cutting vacant positions is one of those ways, she said.
Of the library system's roughly $15 million budget, about $5 million comes from property tax increases voters approved in the 1990s. Those funds are designated for specific programs -- such as children's librarians and more books -- so any cuts would have to come from the remaining $10 million brought in through the General Fund, Martinez said.
Oakland is not alone, however, in having to create areas where cuts can be made.
In Alameda, where a new library will be built for the island community, finance officials say cuts will have to be made, although no exact plans have been created.
Firmer cost-cutting plans should be in place in the next few months, although officials have talked about such measures as hiring freezes and cutting part-time positions, said Zenda James, Alameda finance director.
Departments throughout the city will face 10 percent cuts across the board and the library system is just one of those departments, James said.
In Berkeley, as in Oakland, residents pay an increased property tax for increased services -- a fee that has helped the library recently double its size, officials say.
On one hand, the extra funding means the library system doesn't have to compete with other services -- such as police and fire -- for budget money, said Jackie Griffin, city library director.
But on the other hand, the library's recent expansions have left a lot of space to be managed by fewer staff, a shortfall not likely to be made up in tough economic times, Griffin said.
"We're just doing everything we can to make the best use of all that we have," Griffin said.
Freedman, the American Library Association president, said library funding problems stem from a lack of political clout. At its annual meeting this month in Philadelphia, the ALA will launch a campaign to raise funds and awareness.
"We have to get a message across," Freedman said.
The association sponsored a study released this year that found circulation at 18 of the country's largest libraries was up about 8 percent in 2001 over the average of the four previous years.
Martinez said libraries have long seen increased use when pocketbooks are pinched.
"When the economy goes south, we see a huge surge in circulation," Martinez said.
Instead of spending anywhere from $12 to $24 for new books, more people sign up for waiting lists to check out the latest best-seller, she said. There is also a surge in do-it-yourself repair books, she said.
"We're using this time to look at ourselves and the services we provide," Martinez said.
Wire services contributed to this report.