Saving Story Hour: Budget Cuts Force Library to Offer More with Less

By Kathryn Roethel

View the Video: Saving Story Hour

The San Mateo Public Library faced $253,000 in budget cuts this year.

SAN MATEO – More people than ever used the San Mateo Public Library in 2009, but the increased demand comes on the heels of a $253,700 blow to the library’s budget. Library staff hopes that new tax dollars and creative cost savings will spare them from future cuts and preserve the library’s most vital services.

The library – and everything else under the city of San Mateo’s domain – faced a 5-percent budget cut in May. The cuts were part of city officials’ plan to address the $8-million shortfall in their $79-million budget.

For Ben Ocon, the city librarian in his sixth year on the job, this meant reducing staff, expenses and operating hours – even putting the children’s morning story hour at risk. And he faced these decisions knowing that nearly 867,000 visitors came to his library branches in 2009 – a 17 percent increase over 2008.

“We’ve seen an increase in visitors because we’re in a recession, and people come to use our online resources to look for employment, look through our resume books or apply for jobs,” Ocon said. “We have 100 computers, and they’re almost always full. We’re a safety net for folks.”

One frequent computer user is Claudia Tatola, a San Mateo resident who works as a caregiver at a home for the elderly in Belmont. She does not have a computer at home, so she comes to the library to do her banking and pay her bills online. Currently she’s using the internet to search for health insurance.

“My boyfriend and I also come here to read books about fixing cars,” Tatola said. “We read the books and then work on our cars together.”

In addition to offering free public internet and do-it-yourself resources, Ocon thinks the library is drawing visitors who seek free amusement.

“In a tight economy, people don’t have resources to buy entertainment like they usually would,” he added. “They check out media and books here and spend time with their families. We really are an essential service.”

Drewry Wolf and her two children, 3-year-old Emme and 9-year-old Alex, agree. They come to the library twice a week. Alex works on homework, and Wolf and Emme read books.

“Now, we routinely max out our library cards with 30 to 50 books,” Wolf said. “Before, we were just spending too much money buying books.”

For 15-year-old Johanna Fajardo and her 14-year-old brother Patricio, the library is a cheerful place to do homework and meet friends after school.

“We come on Monday, Thursday and Friday because my mom and older brother work those days. We stay for an hour or an hour and a half until they can come pick us up,” Johanna said.

Knowing he’d have to restructure the library’s budget and continue to serve community members like Tatola, the Wolfs and the Fajardos, Ocon created a team of advisors. He took input from his staff, the library board of directors, and the Library Foundation, which has raised nearly $10 million for the library capital campaign and $100,000 for program services.

Together, they came up with a plan that involved cutting back the literacy program, operating expenses and materials budget and eliminating 1.5 positions from a full and part-time staff of 113. They managed to avoid layoffs by cutting positions that were already vacant.

The public urged library officials not to cut story hour.

The cut that most upset the public was the reduction of operating hours. Ocon and his team recommended cutting hours at the Hillsdale and Marina branches in half – from 35 and 40 hours per week respectively down to only 20.

“We tried to make decisions by thinking about the community we served, and keeping the branches open at the busiest times,” Ocon said. “But we presented this to the public at community meetings, and they wanted access in the mornings and evenings. They wanted to preserve the special programs and story hours.”

Ocon and his staff then created a new plan that allowed the branches to be open 27 hours per week with limited staffing – one librarian at a desk that would ordinarily have two. They also implemented a program that required staff to rotate between all three branches as needed, rather than work at only one.

The library found other ways to work with what they had. Computers usually reserved for youth now double as stations job seekers can use during the day while most kids are in school. Ocon’s staff is stretching the life of computers and other technology, too, waiting a year longer than usual to replace equipment.

The library accounts for 7 percent of San Mateo’s general fund. Its entire $5.6 million budget is less than the city’s $8 million shortfall. And permanent budget cuts like the ones the library and other agencies made make up for only half the deficit. The other half came with the passage of two tax measures, L and M, on Nov. 3.

Measure M goes into effect Jan. 1, 2010 and will raise the hotel tax from 10 to 12 percent. Measure L is a one-quarter-cent sales tax increase that will last eight years, raising the San Mateo sales tax from 9.25 percent to 9.5 percent. It goes into effect April 1, 2010.

According to San Mateo Finance Director Hossein Golestan, Measure L will bring in $3.2 million next year, and Measure M will garner $800,000 – a combined total of $4 million and enough to close the city’s budget gap.

“[The passage of the tax measures] was a wonderful feeling,” Ocon said. “It was like a burden was lifted off city employees. If they hadn’t passed, we would have had to cut an additional $612,000 from our budget. We probably would have had to reduce personnel.”

Library use, including free internet, is up 17 percent over 2008.

Ocon and many of his staff members spent evenings and weekends campaigning for the tax measures. Jan Busa, a library management analyst and 20-year city employee, manned phone banks and participated in a “Dear Friends” e-mail campaign. She said some of her coworkers canvassed neighborhoods passing out literature in support of L and M

“We were so relieved [the measures] passed, and we knew we wouldn’t have to make any more cuts right away,” Busa said. “It’s always scary when budget cuts come down… We’d certainly like to have more people [on staff], but we’re going to continue to offer the best services we can.”

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