Why, oh why, do we vote on Y?
Measure aims to get county libraries funded and open full time again
The backers of this year’s Measure Y are asking for a 1/8-cent sales tax boost to reopen county libraries on Mondays, pay for $8 million in deferred maintenance, update decades-old technology, and expand learning opportunities and programs for children and adults, among other things.
If passed, the measure would bring $10 to $12 million a year to the Library Commission for the next 10 years, the life of the sales tax under Measure Y.
Library Director Brett Lear pointed out that the Library Commission is not a part of the regular county government; it does not defer to the Board of Supervisors nor does it draw funds from the county’s treasury.
“Libraries are funded by a 22.5 cent [per $1,000 of accessed value] levy on property taxes,” Lear said, “and that was set in 1978, just after Proposition 13 was passed.” There are no other major funding sources and Sonoma County’s per capita library support amounts to about $35 per person, well below other Bay Area Counties.
Measure Y is identical to 2014’s Measure M which failed by the slimmest of margins – 63.3 percent “for” to 36.7 percent “against.” Passage requires a two-thirds majority of those voting.
Lear feels that this year’s venture into voter approval is on much better footing than the last try.
“Last time was a last minute decision,” Lear said. The campaign for Measure M didn’t get underway until a month before the election. “This time working with [consultants] Edwards Group, we formed a speaker’s bureau, and set up a campaign committee in December of 2015. There also seems to be a much higher level of awareness in the community. While 2014 was a low turnout election, I think this time – with a presidential election – library lovers are likely to be voting and hopefully will vote for us.”
The ballot arguments against the measure are from the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. They question the need for more library money and say the county could afford to pay for library needs if they’d just fix the pension system. The SCTA also finds comparison to other county per capita support levels bogus, since Sonoma County underwrites the buildings.
However, the county doesn’t fund the library system; property taxes do. A sales tax addition would be shared by everyone, not just property owners.
Library employees are not a part of the county pension system, either. While they are invested in Calpers, “We didn’t vote to increase the benefits like the county did,” Lear said, “and we are in pretty good shape that way.”
The Sonoma County Library Commission runs 14 libraries, the Historical Annex behind the Central Santa Rosa Library, the Healdsburg Wine Library, the Petaluma History Library, three historical collections, and operates adult and child literacy programs.
Most of the library buildings are 40 years old, according to Lear, and many need basic upkeep, including replacing aging HVAC systems.
Responding to criticisms that employees were given raises with increased revenue in the past two years, Lear said, “We need to keep good librarians.” And while revenues from property taxes have risen with the economy in the past several years, “housing and services haven’t stayed stagnant. The cost of nothing has stayed the same. Cost of books, labor, health care. Cost doesn’t keep pace with revenue increase.”
There is a detailed expenditure plan with the measure, outlining exactly what the new revenues will be used for. All new revenue from the plan will be placed in a separate account with the county, and disbursements will be overseen by a citizen’s advisory group.
Based on an expected $12 million annual revenue, the expenditure plan calls for spending $2.4 million a year on supporting collections, educational programs and children’s classes; spending $6.2 million on improving access to libraries, including restoring Monday hours; and using $3.4 million on maintaining aging facilities, including branch improvements.
Just staffing the 14 libraries from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays would cost roughly $1.2 million a year, according to Ken Nieman, chief financial officer for the Library Commission. That would include money for staff and a number of services. Library hours were cut by 25 percent in 2011.
Other library problems include decreased book-buying which has lead to wait lists of up to six months, inadequate youth and adult education budgets, no computer labs, $8 million in deferred maintenance costs, and $1.5 million in deferred IT and technology investments.
The $8 million in deferred maintenance is “just to patch the tires and get things functional, not replacing things or doing updates and renovations,” Lear said. “Another critical thing, the Annex Building roof needs to be replaced very quickly. During the last rainy season we had to run over there with buckets.” Some of the county’s most valuable historical documents are kept in that building.
Katherine Rinehart, a Petaluma resident who runs the History and Genealogy room housed in the Annex behind the main library, says the funding is critical.
“We are running a 21st-Century library on a 1978 funding model,” she said. “You can’t do it.”