Los Angeles votes on library funding next week

Los Angeles' Central Public Library is illuminated on the night of December 1, 2009 in downtown Los Angeles.
Los Angeles' Central Public Library is illuminated on the night of December 1, 2009 in downtown Los Angeles.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images

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Los Angeles city voters decide next week on Tuesday, March 8 whether to set aside more money for public libraries in the city’s charter.

Last year, the mayor and City Council slashed spending on the library system to address a big budget deficit. That forced all 76 locations to close two days a week for the first time.

It’s hard to argue against more money for libraries when you listen to people like Lily Marage. “I use the Central Library in downtown L.A. It’s my favorite branch because, like, everything goes through, everything! I can get my manga fix," says Marage. “Manga. Comic books. Japanese comics is manga. I love their books, I love their books!”

At a rally outside City Hall, the 23-year-old recalls growing up in Pennsylvania and moving to a rough neighborhood near downtown L.A. “I read from when I was little because I didn’t want to be like the other kids who hang around and be in gangs and do stuff. I rather read because it opened my mind to the world, people and new ideas and stuff like that.”

“Our opposition is not of the libraries or the importance of libraries," says Christy Sandoval. Sandoval is with the labor union that represents rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers – one of the few groups opposed to Measure L.

The ballot measure would nearly double the library’s guaranteed portion of property tax revenue, to 0.03 percent. That’s not a giant share, but Sandoval objects to the principle behind it – she says locking up money for libraries amid a big budget deficit is a bad idea.

“That ballot box budgeting basically circumvents the budget process," says Sandoval, "and it circumvents the City Council and what they’ve been elected to do.”

The police union exerts a lot of power at City Hall, and the more city money out of its reach likely means less for the LAPD – which receives 51 percent of the general fund now.

The Los Angeles Times also urges a “no” vote on Measure L, saying it ties the hands of the City Council and forces deeper cuts to services like street maintenance and parks.

In City Hall's ornate City Council Chambers, City Council President Eric Garcetti acknowledges that he and his colleagues approved deep cuts to libraries – reducing staff by a quarter and forcing all 76 branches to close on Sundays and Mondays. Now, Garcetti and his colleagues urge voters to intervene and support Measure L.

Garcetti says this isn't the City Council saying they can't be trusted to find libraries and that they need voters to make them do the right thing. “No. We will do it either way.”

The City Council didn't do it last year. Garcetti explains, “It kind of went under the radar, and the impact of the library cuts, I don’t think, we realized until the libraries started shutting down.”

Library managers had warned before the vote that they’d have to cut operating hours. Garcetti said at the time he’d hoped they could find savings without closing.

Under Measure L, funding would jump from about $75 million to $130 million over four years. Some of the money would pay for maintenance and pensions – costs previously borne by the general fund. About half the increase in the first few years would go directly to library services – including more open days for branches.

Garcetti says the shift wouldn’t take a big chunk out of the general fund. “Ya know, if you’re looking at this at just a percentage of, for instance, LAPD budget, you’re talking about almost one-tenth of one percent.”

L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck is among Measure L’s supporters. Opponents ask him and others why the city should force more cuts on other departments to bolster the libraries.

Librarians’ Guild President Roy Stone argues that people shouldn’t regard libraries as just another city department. “We’re the cornerstone of democracy. Without the free public library system, you don’t have that open exchange of information. You don’t have librarians say, ‘No, if you go on Google, you’re not going to get real information. Let me show you a database that the library provides for you. Let me get you this book.’ We’re the repository of information.”

Even, he says, in the age of Amazon, Wikipedia and Twitter.