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Los Altos libraries face uncertain future with county affiliation: Officials explore ways

Charging nonresidents a fee to check out materials at Los Altos’ main and Woodland libraries is unacceptable, several speakers said at the North County Library Authority (NCLA) special meeting June 13.

Los Altos Hills Councilman Jean Mordo, an NCLA member, voted in favor of the $80 library card fee April 28 as a member of the Santa Clara County Library District Joint Powers Authority (JPA) board but said he regretted his action soon afterward. Mordo called the five-member meeting to discuss ways to offset the fee, effective July 1 for district nonresidents – especially students and volunteers.

“The issue is how to help nonresidents with the $80 fee,” he said. “We need a study to figure out the numbers.”

Eight of the 11 members on the JPA board voted unanimously for the fee to mitigate the impending $1.3 million in state budget cuts for the county library district, part of $30.4 million in cuts for libraries statewide. Cuts include approximately $800,000 in Transaction Based Reimbursement funds the Los Altos libraries receive for being a net lender to nonresidents.

The use of Los Altos’ libraries will remain free for residents of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, but those who live in cities that do not belong to the county library district – like Mountain View – will have to pay for the privilege beginning next month.

The county library district serves residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Milpitas, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Saratoga and the county’s unincorporated areas.

Of 67,647 total Los Altos libraries cardholders, 20,739 are nondistrict residents subject to the $80 annual library card fee, according to Melinda Cervantes, county librarian.

Reacting to criticism from the community – especially regarding nondistrict students who often study together and use the same library – JPA staff members June 2 adopted a free limited student card. Students attending preschool through high school whose district boundaries overlap the county library district boundaries are eligible for the card, which allows students to check out five items and place two on hold.

“The student card is a significant improvement,” Mordo said. “I wanted all the students in the county to have access to the libraries – including community college students – but got no support from the other (JPA) members.”

Mordo’s wife, Barbara, a longtime community volunteer and member of the Foothill College Commission, said she finds turning college students away “abhorrent.”

NCLA members decided to have their city councils communicate to the district library staff their suggestion that the JPA board consider an exemption for all students, from preschool to college.

Another segment of the population Mordo and other members want to subsidize is library volunteers, many of whom live outside the district. “Our communities thrive on volunteerism,” Los Altos mayor and NCLA member Ron Packard said.

Val Carpenter, Los Altos councilwoman and NCLA member, suggested using the $10,000 contingency amount toward 125 library cards to allow volunteers free access to materials.

NCLA members supported Carpenter’s motion to form a subcommittee to work with members of the Los Altos Library Endowment and Friends of the Los Altos Library and Community to develop a plan to implement her suggestion and report back at the next meeting, scheduled 5 p.m. June 29.

Will Los Altos and LAH check out of district?

Numbers show that it doesn’t make fiscal sense for Los Altos and Los Altos Hills to remain part of the Santa Clara County Library District, according to Los Altos Hills Councilman Jean Mordo.

Mordo called a special meeting of the North County Library Authority (NCLA) June 13 to begin exploring the cities’ withdrawal from the library district.

“(The county library district) is an outstanding system, but this is purely due to economics,” he said. “We contribute more than we get back. I’m concerned about not getting our fair share.”

According to county librarian Melinda Cervantes, the district’s estimated operating budget for 2011-2012 totals $35.8 million. A major share of its $32.2 million revenue – $23.6 million, or 74 percent – comes from property taxes from the cities it serves: Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Milpitas, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Saratoga and the unincorporated areas of the county.

Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and the unincorporated areas contribute approximately 22.2 percent in property taxes to the district. But their share back from the district for next year, according to a predetermined formula based on a combination of circulation, property taxes and population, is less – 16.87 percent.

The calculations are very complex, but it’s apparent that there’s a “significant shortfall,” which could translate to several thousand dollars, Mordo said. Comparing the pros and cons of remaining part of the district, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, he said.

The recent approval of an $80 library card fee for nondistrict users of the Los Altos libraries left Mordo frustrated. He felt the district was turning away users from nonmember cities including Mountain View and San Jose.

“We subsidize more than anyone else,” he said. “We can do the functions they do – only much cheaper. (The district) has an expensive and restrictive labor contract with high benefits.”

When asked by Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard, an NCLA member, how much revenue the $80 fee would generate for the district, Cervantes said “about $200,000 – it’s a complicated situation.”

District staff has already engaged in several cost-cutting measures, according to Cervantes.

When Packard asked for clarification on the financial repercussions of withdrawing from the district, Cervantes replied that cities would have to forfeit the funds previously received from the district should they withdraw.

“The library district offers a significant economy of scale through centralized services that would need to be duplicated if withdrawing from the district,” she said. “Size does matter when it comes to negotiating contracts with vendors and suppliers.”

Packard agreed that Los Altos and Los Altos Hills do contribute much more than they receive per the complicated formula.

“I’m in favor of conducting a study (to withdraw from the district),” he said.

“We have a new set of circumstances, and I think it’s about time,” Los Altos Hills resident and NCLA member Jim Lai said.

The five-member NCLA voted 4-1 to have their city councils discuss and possibly support the issue before embarking on an exploratory study. Los Altos Councilwoman Val Carpenter cast the dissenting vote.

“I’m opposed to spending that kind of money, or even half that,” she said. “We have an award-winning library district. We offer longer hours, better selections and better services.”

The two city councils are scheduled to discuss the issue at their meetings before the next NCLA meeting, scheduled June 29.

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