It should be a happy time. The city's $76 million library-improvement project is sailing along swimmingly and, in some cases, ahead of schedule, city officials said this week. Fundraising efforts for library furniture are accelerating, and the Downtown Library just closed down for major renovations — an event city leaders commemorated with a cheerful ceremony.
But with the city facing a $7.3 million budget deficit, it now appears increasingly likely that the new, state-of-the-art libraries will have shorter hours and smaller collections than residents expected when they passed Measure N in 2008. City Manager James Keene's proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1, slashes the Library Department's budget for collections by 18 percent — meaning fewer new books, reference materials and electronic resources. Keene also proposed keeping all libraries closed on Monday and changing the closing time at Mitchell Park and Main libraries from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The College Terrace Library, which is currently undergoing construction, would be closed until summer of 2011, despite the fact that the renovations are scheduled to be completed this fall. Keeping the branch closed for an extra eight months is expected to save the city about $74,000. The Downtown Library's bond-funded renovation is scheduled to be completed in spring of 2011, but the budget proposes to keep the branch closed until the end of June 2011.
Library Director Diane Jennings said her department, in proposing the cuts, tried to spread the impacts widely to avoid affecting any group of library users disproportionately. Some stay in the libraries for hours without checking anything out, she said. Others pick up their materials and leave quickly, while others use the library system remotely. Accordingly, the budget cuts her department identified seek to strike a balance between the collection budget, the hours of operation and the available library services.
Jennings also emphasized that most of the cuts in the department's budget are things that could be restored if the economic climate improves. A few, such as deferring opening the College Terrace branch, are clearly temporary. Still, she said some residents, including former City Council member Dena Mossar, said they were worried about the proposed deferral.
"People are very eager to get into their libraries," Jennings said. "They don't want to see their libraries not being available for an extended period of time."
Jim Schmidt, president of Friends of the Palo Alto Library, told the Weekly this week he has not yet seen a credible argument for deferring the opening of the two branches. He also said he expects the proposed cuts to the library budget to hit new books particularly hard. Because new materials are the ones that attract the most interest, the cuts would likely lead to an overall decline in library use.
But Schmidt, who also sits on a committee that oversees expenditure of Measure N funds, said it's important not to mix up the city's yearly budget woes with the bond-funded capital project, which appears to be proceeding smoothly. On Monday night, the City Council is expected to authorize staff to sell $60 million in bonds for renovations of Downtown, Main and Mitchell Park libraries and for the new Mitchell Park Community Center.
This past Monday, the council also heard a report from project architects and city officials involved in the Measure N projects. Mike Sartor, assistant director of the Public Works Department, said the city has been hurrying along to take advantage of the favorable construction-bid climate.
Under the current timeline, the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center are scheduled to open in the middle of 2012, with the Main Library following a year later.
The council also approved a new "naming" policy to acknowledge major donors to the library project. The Palo Alto Library Foundation, a nonprofit group that spearheaded the Measure N drive, is now leading a campaign to raise $4.3 million for library furniture, equipment and fixtures — items not funded by Measure N.
The naming plan, presented by foundation President Alison Cormack Monday, calls for those who donate between $1 million and $2 million to have their names displayed in more prominent areas (including the new wing at the Main Library and the prominent meeting room shared by the Mitchell Park Library and the Mitchell Park Community Center), while those who donate between $100,000 and $200,000 would have their names attached to some of the smaller rooms in the new facilities (including the teen room at the Main Library and the study room in the Downtown Library).
The rooms themselves would be named after local neighborhoods and landmarks (Midtown Room, Barron Park Room, Ventura Room, El Palo Alto Room). The donors' names would be displayed next to the room names.
Cormack said the foundation has already raised more than $500,000, which includes verbal commitments, formal pledges and money in the bank. She called the library renovations the "largest project in the city in many decades" and encouraged residents to support the foundation's fundraising efforts (information is available at PALF.org).