The city's budget woes have hurt its public libraries with staff cutbacks and closed doors, but Measure L on Tuesday's ballot aims to give libraries more support by increasing city funding for libraries to a projected $130 million dollars each year.
The Public Library Funding Charter Amendment would give libraries a bigger share of property tax revenues through an amendment to the City Charter.
Libraries, in return, would be gradually required to pay a bigger share of expenses like salaries, pensions, equipment and building maintenance, so called "direct and indirect" costs, now coming from the city's General Fund.
Libraries, like many institutions, are having a tough time.
Last summer, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council voted to limit libraries to a five-day-a-week service on Tuesdays through Saturdays.
That decision was historical since, in their 139-year-history, Los Angeles libraries have always remained open at least six days a week.
Morning and evening hours were also trimmed, and staff (328 positions, over 25 percent) eliminated through attrition, layoffs and early retirements.
Then in January Governor Jerry Brown proposed a statewide budget to eliminate all state funding for public libraries--a total of $30.4 million.
All this turmoil has some wondering if it's the beginning of the end for free access to Internet, computers, and printers as well as tutoring, literacy programs and, of course, books.
"I budget a good portion of my day to use the libraries," said Ryan Vaughn who uses the "It's crucial for work because I don't have Internet at home."
Matthew Potter, who also uses the free wireless at the Echo Park Library, recalled a frustrating time last summer.
He came to the library only to find a sign saying it was closed. "People aren't up in arms enough about it," he said.
Potter and Vaughn echoed the concerns of many since the city's 73 libraries got slammed by budget cuts last year.
Senior Librarian Carole Kealoha of the Mar Vista library branch said it's not unsual for there to be a line of 20 people waiting for the library to open and every computer terminal is usually taken within minutes of the library opening.
Over the last few weeks a great deal of statistics have been bandied about when it comes to what Measure L means, but as Kealoha points out, none explain what the cuts have really meant to the libraries and their patrons.
“I’ve lost three staff in this branch,” said Kealoha. “Two half-time employees and one full-time.” The half-time employees were messenger clerks whose job it was to shelve the books and process all the newspapers.
“Now we have to shelve them ourselves and we simply don’t have the time or manpower. We do have some volunteers,” she added, “but they can only do the alphabetical shelving, we can’t give them more complex tasks.” As a result, Kealoha says things have become difficult because many books just aren’t in the right place anymore and shelving is taking much longer.
Kealoha also lost her full-time adult librarian who spent the majority of his time on the reference desk, answering questions and looking up information. “Now we have to spend more time on the reference desk ourselves, which cuts into our outreach time and our programming. I had started a science fiction book club in cooperation with Venice Library but we had to cancel it.”
The Mar Vista Branch library now has only three permanent librarians, one of whom is half-time, along with four full-time clerk typists who work on the circulation desk, and two messenger clerks. Kealoha says there’s no backup for people who get ill or take vacation. “We simply don’t have anyone to call in if someone gets sick,” she said.
Some influential organizations, including the League of Women Voters, are urging people to vote no on Measure L, arguing that those funds that would be earmarked for the libraries are needed to support police and fire services.
"I love the libraries, but what concerns me is that the city says it won't raise taxes, but it is not talking about where the money will come from," said James O'Sullivan, President of Miracle Mile Association and an opponent of Measure L.
Sullivan was invited to convene with The Los Angeles Times before the paper published its editorial opposing the measure.
"It's making a decision in the dark," he said of the measure.
The Los Angeles Daily News also published an editorial opposing the measure, citing concerns over public safety.
"The measure could mean cuts to police, fire, parks and recreation, and street services," added Los Angeles Police Protective League President Paul Weber in a statement.
"Measure L simply mandates the movement of money from one pot to another and restricts its use," he said.
Although the Los Angeles Police Department denied a request to comment, it is publicly known Chief of Police Charlie Beck personally supports Measure L.
So do all 15 LA City Council members.
The LAPL has responded strongly to the criticism that supporting Measure L could jeopardize public safety if less money is available for police. Library officials have said that the libraries play an intrinsic part in helping to prevent crime by offering the city’s largest after-school program, providing children alternatives to gangs and drugs, assisting teens in preparing for college and helping adults and children learn to read. Currently 90,000 children visit the city’s libraries every week.
During a coffee break, Kealoha teared up as she talked about the many latchkey kids in the city. “If those [latchkey kids] are not here, where will they go after school?” she asked.
She points out graffiti scrawled on the library’s windows by local gang members and talks of the time her 10-year-old son and her husband were trapped in a local parking lot during a gang shooting.
“Those gangs are out recruiting every day and I don’t want to see children joining gangs. [The library] is a safe haven and we want to keep our kids safe,” she said.
Kealoha added there are so many other programs and services that libraries provide in helping people get back on their feet and becoming active members of society. “We have people who come here to use the computers, many of whom don’t have Internet access at home or their computer or printer is broken,” she pointed out.
She noted that the recession has also driven more people to the libraries as they cannot afford to either buy or fix their computers or pay for their Internet any longer, and they certainly can’t afford to buy books. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” she said. And with more and more people unemployed, many of them come to the libraries for job seeking and resume writing assistance.
“We also offer tutoring online, free eBook and video downloads, research assistance and computer classes,” she noted.
One of the draws that Kealoha is most proud of is the library’s storytelling program. “Introducing children to reading at a very young age has always been a huge part of our outreach,” she explained. “It’s part of our mission along with helping parents teach their kids to read and setting them up for the future.
“It all goes back to Thomas Jefferson,” she said. “Providing education and equal access to everyone creates a democracy.”