Saturday, June 12, 2010

Grand jury says Santa Cruz County library branches need tech upgrade, new books and a savings account

Posted: 06/10/2010 06:58:03 PM PDT
Updated: 06/11/2010 11:07:59 AM PDT

SANTA CRUZ - The Santa Cruz County grand jury released a report Thursday accusing system leaders of failing to address long-term problems while the system's finances continue to suffer.

"What the grand jury discovered are aging facility and technology infrastructures, a declining collection, no reserves for normal operations or emergencies, and no plans to create the financial foundation that will enable the Santa Cruz Public Libraries to be nimble in meeting the future needs of patrons in an era of rapidly-evolving technology," the report stated.

While the report did not recommend the governing Joint Powers Board shutter the smaller of the system's 10 branches, it did recommend local communities possibly take them over until system leaders can buy much-needed technological infrastructure and build a cash reserve, which they do not have right now.

"They've got to do something," said Doug Horton, chairman of the grand jury committee that studied the libraries. "If you keep putting it off until next year, things aren't going to get any better until the economy turns around."

Library system Director Teresa Landers said system leaders are researching solutions to the system's problems, and decisions like closing branches are not ones to make lightly.

"They are correct in that we are facing an uncertain and difficult financial future with a need to address various areas such as technology, facilities and collection," Landers said. However, leaders "do not want to presume that any one solution such as closing branches is the best answer until we explore a variety of possibilities more fully."

Findings and recommendations in the report include:

* The library system must balance its budget, invest in technology and establish a cash reserve, even at the cost of cutting staff and handing off branches.

* Losses are expected every year until 2014, with the deficit that year swelling to more than $4 million.

* Pending new libraries in Scotts Valley, Felton and Capitola will cost more to run than the system likely can afford.

* Santa Cruz libraries are the only ones in the nation still using an archaic computer program to tracks books borrowed, fines owed and other information. The program's manufacturer no longer supports it, and only one person on staff has the knowledge to maintain it.

* Older library patrons say they prefer local library branches, books and personal service. Younger visitors, however, envision fewer branches with more technological media opportunities in the future.

* "The board, with elected representatives of the cities and county constituting a majority, seems to lack the political will to make the tough decisions that might be unpopular with constituents."

The libraries' dire situation comes after the system's budget shrank from $12.6 million to $11.3 million last year. It is expected to keep dropping to $10.7 million over the next few years as the nation's economic doldrums take their toll on tax revenues. This year's budget is less than $11 million.

About half of the library system's budget is paid for with revenue from a quarter-cent local sales tax first passed in 1996. County voters in 2008 agreed to make the tax permanent. But as residents shop less during the recession, that revenue stream has fallen off.

Library board member and Scotts Valley Mayor Jim Reed said the report confirms what he has long been advocating: it's time to cut back.

"Its really hard to argue with anything that's in here," Reed said. "They've identified a system that's in dire straights financially, has too many branches and postpones tough but necessary decisions. Unfortunately, I think there's truth in all three."

However, Reed said he felt the report ignored the fact the new libraries in Capitola and Scotts Valley are being built with outside money at no cost to the library system, and therefore should be looked at as a long-term investment, not a burden.

County Supervisor and library board member Ellen Pirie, an advocate for keeping all branches open, nonetheless said the report was accurate. She is a member of the task force underway to address many of the long-term concerns raised within it.

"This task force is undertaking exactly what the grand jury report is talking about," Pirie said. "This is going to be a really good group looking really seriously at how do we continue library service in Santa Cruz County in the future."

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