LA County library system in a growing financial hole

LA County's library system is facing significant financial challenges.
LA County's library system is facing significant financial challenges.

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L.A. County's library system is facing a massive structural deficit and the county has not yet figured out what to do about it.

Salaries, retirement, benefits, and operating costs are expected to push the County of Los Angeles Public Library system's deficit to nearly $10.8 million annually by 2022. At the moment, the system's operating deficit is about $1.2 million. 

"Unfortunately, it's pretty normal for us to be challenged by resources," said Skye Patrick, L.A. County's library director. "This has been going on for many years."

Patrick traced the start of the library system's financial troubles to Proposition 13, the property tax cap passed by state voters in 1978, which cut off some revenue for libraries. Since then, a patchwork of funding changes have ensued. 

"We've never fully recovered from that," she said. 

Current additional challenges include living wage increases, minimum wage increases, and retiree health benefits. 

Patrick said the library and other county officials are researching solutions—and there aren't very many realistic ones. Cities that utilize county library services could chip in more, or the county could put general fund dollars towards the system. Layoffs or cutting services are not currently on the table, Patrick said.

"Libraries are booming at this point," Patrick said, and perform a vital role in the social safety net for those who can't afford their own internet and media. The system also does meal programs for children, has some homeless services, English classes, job readiness programs, and summer programs for kids.

Despite the changing nature of media and consumption, Patrick said, libraries have continued to show their value, a perspective she hopes local officials will consider when making funding decisions. 

A full set of cost-related recommendations is expected to go before the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

“We need to address the Library’s structural deficit," said Supervisor Janice Hahn. "Unless we find a sustainable source of funding for our County libraries, we will have no choice but to cut programs and staff—a last resort nobody wants.”

The County of L.A.'s Public Library system operated 87 locations, serving about 3.4 million people and has a roughly $200 million annual budget.