City Council Hears Pleas to Restore Library Position

Supporters of the library came to its defense during a council meeting on Wednesday

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | Entrance for the South Pasadena Public Library

A half dozen supporters of the South Pasadena Library implored the City Council Wednesday not to go through with a plan to reject the Library’s request to retain a full-time position needed to fix what Library Director Cathy Billings called “lingering staffing and operational issues” left over from the 2016 Library Operations Study (LOS) reorganization. She said the position is needed to buttress a severe lag in library technology capability.

The library’s May 17 reopening was a big event, with some 250 residents coming in person to check out nearly 1,100 items on the first day alone. Normally, the library serves 20,000 people a month who check out a total of 27,000 items.

“I am dismayed at the implication that the library will be able to function at its current high level despite the second cut in full time staff” in less than a decade, wrote Carolyn Flemming, a former Library Board Trustee. She explained that in 2012, full-time library staff was reduced from 11 to 10. Then the LOS recommended creation of an Assistant Library Director but offered no way to pay for it. Instead, a few vacant positions were consolidated, leaving the full-time staff level at 10. Now the city wants to lower that to nine. “Despite the depth of commitment from Library staff, it is only realistic to expect that this latest reduction in size will hamper their ability to serve the community.”

Former City Clerk Sally Kilby said the cut would come “at time when staff is valiantly trying to meet the public’s increasing desire for services [and] when meeting the expectations of today’s customer requires a great deal of onsite, technical expertise.” She said “the critical, integrated library system that all library services are based on is understood by a single employee. There is no back up aside from expensive vendor services.”

Both Kilby and Library Board of Trustees President Bianca Richards pointed to the city’s recent online survey seeking public input on the proposed 2021-22 budget, in which 156 of the 233 respondents rated library services and programing as their first or second priority, slightly ahead of both policing and environmental programs.

“Clearly the results reflect the library’s value to the community, but the budget proposal does not,” Richards said. In written comments, she added “I’d rather see a police hiring freeze and then commit those monies to library service.”

The Council is hoping to adopt the fiscal 2021-22 budget at its meeting June 16 but, according to a May 27 presentation given to the Finance Commission by Interim Assistant City Manager Elaine Aguilar, it is not proposing a cut to the library budget. The proposed $31.8 million general fund budget includes a 12.2 percent increase for the library to $1.8 million—despite only a 2 percent increase in projected library tax revenue and another year with no library fine revenue.

However, in response to concerns about pandemic-driven revenue declines last September, the city adopted a range of savings measures for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, including the elimination of the position of Assistant Library Director, which was vacant at the time. That reduced full-time staff to 9.

In her 2021-22 budget request, which received the support from the Library Board of Trustees at its April 8 meeting, Library Director Billings said the position is no longer needed. Instead, she recommended converting the position into a fourth, full time librarian who would be responsible for library technology. She also asked to upgrade a full-time clerk to a library associate.

The changes, she told the Trustees in a report, “will bring much needed technological expertise to the Support Services team, which has never been reorganized in response to the extensive technological changes of the last two or more decades that are now the backbone of modern library services.” She said the library “is not adequately staffed to develop our most critical technologies, and a retirement in the coming years would leave us with almost no expertise for these foundational systems.”

But in her budget presentation, Aguilar did not include the conversion, offering only the clerk upgrade. While acknowledging that most departments were getting increases in addition to the restoration of pandemic-related cuts, she presented a chart indicating that Library and Community Services will simply have their funding and programs “restored to pre-pandemic level[s].”

During the same presentation, Aguilar noted that the city has not yet decided how to allocate some $4.37 million in proceeds from recent cell tower leases, nor the estimated $4.7 million the city expects to get in federal Covid-19 relief funds.

 

 

Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle. He and his wife Karin, an arts administrator from El Sereno, live in South Pasadena.