by Alan Ferdman
Last year, the City of Santa Clarita celebrated its 30th birthday, with all eyes on past achievements and success. On the city’s website appeared a page touting, “30 REASONS TO LOVE YOUR CITY” with number 4 being “Three libraries (with one more on the way in Saugus!).”
Well, it is a new year, with the first combined Board of Library Trustees and City Council Meeting to take place on Tuesday, January 9. The meeting agenda is normally provided on the prior Thursday evening, giving the public a few days to digest what business will be conducted. I had anticipated we would ease into 2018, but I have to acknowledge my surprise to find agenda item 9, calling for the Transition of Library Services, from being outsourced to LSSI, to a city in-house operation.
Agenda item 9 staff report indicated, “over the past two-and-one-half fiscal years, (Library) service has not met the City’s high expectations.” Unfortunately, the staff report did not reveal what these high expectations consisted of, or answer the obvious question: Why had this issue not been made public and brought before the Board of Library Trustees prior to the perceived need for this action? To be more factual, I am unaware of any operational issues ever being brought before the Board of Library Trustees.
Now, I will admit right from the start, I was not in favor of privatizing the city’s libraries when it was done in 2011. My opposition was based on the level of service being provided by the County Library System, and my concern relative to LSSI not being able to maintain an identical, or better, level of service.
When the city first incorporated, our libraries were an integral part of the L.A. County Library System. They were managed by professional librarians and we were able to draw on all the libraries in L.A. County for books and materials. L.A. County libraries are funded by a portion of the property tax paid by residents in their area, a special LACO library tax used to fund new facilities and facilities improvements, and developer fees. When the city incorporated in 1987, library developer fees were established and collected by the city.
Early on, the city recognized the need to improve the Canyon Country Library. “In 2001, in partnership with the County Public Library and a private shopping center developer, the city spearheaded construction and contributed more than $5 million toward a new, 17,000-square-foot, county-operated library … to replace the outdated and outgrown 1971 facility.” Initially “the county utilized 12,864 square feet … for library services, and leased 4,136 square feet to College of the Canyons for its … east-side educational center.” (SCVHistory.com)
Sometime later, city staff looked to improve the old Newhall Library. L.A. County agreed to fund the construction of a 10,000-square-foot library, based on Newhall’s user population and revenue base. But, our City Council was looking for a 30,000-square-foot library building at the entry to Main Street. The intent was to not only provide library services, but also establish an anchor for the Newhall arts and entertainment district and, as we learned later, to establish a maximum building height for Main Street. Finances were going to be a problem, because library developer fees collected had still not paid for the Canyon Country Library.
Then came LSSI. A private company who had been convincing municipalities across the country, they could run a library system more economically than the municipality could themselves. A plan emerged, if LSSI could run the library system for the amount collected in property tax, the city could withdraw from the L.A. County system and use the special Library Facilities Tax to pay for the new Newhall Library.
One problem became apparent. The resolution which established the special L.A. County Library Facilities Tax stated, a municipality could not collect the tax if they withdrew from the County Library system. I know the council knew about the wording in the resolution, because I read it to them at a council meeting. After which, staff told me I was incorrect.
On August 24, 2010, the City Council voted to withdraw from the Los Angeles County Library System. Upon notification, the L.A. County Tax Collector sent the city a letter indicating the Special Library Tax would no longer be collected for them. L.A. County was in process of a $1.6 million makeover of the Canyon Country Library and immediately ceased work. In addition, to assume control of the existing Valencia and Newhall Library along with their contents, the city would have to purchase them. Adding in the other transition items, the costs totaled out at approx. $10.5 million.
So, you can understand my skepticism when city staff says they are going to save our taxpayers money. I looked up AB340 and it only affects employees hired after 2013. It would be easy to make the numbers look any way they wanted, because the employees and their labor grades did not exist prior to this proposal.
We will just have to wait for the other shoe to drop, and I will report about it next week. One thing, heavy library uses have told me about this situation is, if they need a service or a book the Santa Clarita Library does not provide, they can still go to the county libraries in Stevenson Ranch, Aqua Dulce or Castaic and get what they need.