Palo Alto Weekly
News - May 7, 2010
Shorter hours, smaller collections eyed for Palo Alto libraries
City ponders keeping some libraries closed, trimming budget for new collections
by Gennady Sheyner
For Palo Alto's library supporters, the city's latest budget proposal is the ultimate buzz kill.
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).
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by Dolores,
a resident of Green Acres
on May 11, 2010 at 2:04 am
Didn't we go over this ad nauseum a few years ago, before the VAST majority of Palo Altans voted for a library bond? Looks like some leftover sore losers are showing up on this thread.
Look, just add up how much the return are for benefits received from the community, by the library. A number of those studies have already been done, and every single one of them shows a positive ROI (in terms of weighted dollar benefits)for every dollar invested in Libraries. The more libraries stay open, the more we benefit. Easy decision there, Jimbo.
About the budget cuts: Look, what's happening here is what's happening in a lot of cities now that we're in the soup, caused by huge, worldwide structural changes. So, all most City Councils and their hired hand City Managers can do to divert attention is come up with reams of budget cuts, making everyone angry, or panicked, and forcing really hard service cut decisions on the citizens. Nice smoke screen for feckless governance models that don't adapt very well, eh? Look, Palo Alto is going to continue to loose services, and management will not suffer very much because management never suffers if management is the one to stop the pain. That doesn't mean that management is evil; it just means that management is human. What do you expect. People protect what's theirs; I write that with due respect for Jim Keene.
That said, what has changed in Palo Alto since we have become challenged, in terms of our governance model? Not a thing. We still elect 9 well-meaning Council members who dont' even rotate out of office at the same time! Tell me, how do you get things done with that many people who come and go in staggered terms. Who's responsible for any large decisions. Who? *Nobody*, because it's a diffuse decision-making body. They do their best, but they can't lead. How do you lead in a situation like that. Occasionally the Council will unanimously support a project, like they did the library, but that was an easy one. What about the hard decisions? What about setting aggressive milestones for improvement and adaptability? Sorry, that isn't going to happen because there are too many chefs in the kitchen.
One day, maybe we'll elect a mayor. That will not solve our problems, but it would surely introduce far more accountability into our governance model. It would force the City Manager to work toward aggressive goals, instead of playing footsie with the Council and oru citizenry, with the result that the City Managers we hire are superb "PC" types. I'm not knocking Jim Keene, but that's really his main gig - keeping everyone happy. His job is not to innovate. His job is to placate; to keep things down to a dull roar; to protect turf. That's just the way it is, and why all the so-called smart people in this town have not questioned the repetitive nature of a slowly failing governance model (in terms of its ability to maintain advantage, and really solve problems, instead of the too-often goofy things we see raining down (like closing libraries on Monday - just pathetic! - add up the social costs for that closure, and translate it to cumulative dollars in cost; the cost in social benefit (that translates to dollars) will be MORE than the money saved - the formulas are there, but they won't be used, not in he current environment). And we're supposed to be a smart community?
I have an answer to all this; it's an answer that most Council members don't like, and that the City Manager doesn't like. Reduce the size of City Council to make decision-making more adept, and adaptable. *Elect* a mayor who has just enough separation of power to hire and fire the City Manager. Then, sit back and watch things change. You won't like everything, but then you won't be stuck with the empty promises made by campaigning Council candidates, because it takes a majority of nine (with many of the nine rotating out every few years). Pay the mayor and City Council members a decent wage; that will guarantee more variety on Council. Just watch the change in behavior of our politicians and the City Manager. They would have something to lose. If they don't perform, they're gone, and we get a chance to start with a new, elected mayor, instead of being stuck with a system that does not know anything but long deliberations, and that by design passes the responsibility buck to a City Manager who is really a 10th politician, and a well paid one, at that, and who is trying like the dickens to keep his/her job.
The real tragedy is that everyone is trying to do a good job, but the governance environment doesn't permit turn on a dime innovation and fresh thinking. It encourages more of the same, and knee-jerk double bottom line accounting solutions (slash and burn) when things get tough. And this is supposed to be a smart community? Prove it! Get down with forcing change on a system that no longer functions to the larger benefit of all. Yes, some austerity is called for, but where's the innovation? And by innovation I don't mean weekly trips to IDEO to hear about "new ideas" - a practice inspired by one of our honorable former mayors. I mean, really, can we get serious in this City, and dig deeper than balance sheets? Good grief!