Sun10262014

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Window shopping for library services: Council approves task force to review alternatives


Photo By: Town Crier File PHoto
Photo Town Crier File Photo

The Los Altos City Council voted 3-2 to convene a task force to explore library services options.
The Los Altos City Council voted 3-2 in favor of creating a task force to explore alternative library service options outside the Santa Clara County Library District.

The narrow vote came after a report from Councilman David Casas and Mayor Val Carpenter outlined the difference between the funds Los Altos and Los Altos Hills contribute annually to the library district and the return they receive in library services. Other members of the district include Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Saratoga, Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Milpitas and unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County.

“The objective of the task force would be to explore whether or not it is in the best interest of the city of Los Altos to withdraw from the library district and enter into an agreement with one or more adjacent cities which operate their own libraries,” the report stated.

The task force will include one councilmember each from Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, both city managers, two Los Altos Library Commission members, single representatives from the Friends of the Library of Los Altos and Community and the Los Altos Library Endowment, as well as a Los Altos resident not currently serving on the aforementioned bodies.

According to the report, Los Altos Hills Councilman Jean Mordo – a former chief financial officer – discovered in 2011 that the cities’ combined annual contributions ranged between $620,000 and $1.4 million more than the services received from the district, depending on certain underlying assumptions.

The district’s governing body, the Joint Powers Authority (JPA) Board of Directors, currently uses a funding formula that weighs equally each member’s population, property assessed valuation and library circulation to allocate costs.

The discovery led to a request to review the funding formula, but the JPA board rejected any changes. In late October, the board voted against an alternative option – known as the “5 percent tolerance threshold.” The mechanism would have given Los Altos’ libraries additional funds if the percentage share of assessed valuation for a library exceeded the calculated formula by more than 5 percent.

The threshold, surpassed in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 by Los Altos, amounted to an additional $66,000 for Los Altos libraries, according to the staff report.

“I have to say, I’m disappointed with the actions of the JPA board that I’ve been on the past two years, but I’m not really too surprised since many JPA board members were running for various offices at the time of this decision,” Carpenter said.

Mixed reactions

Reaction to the proposal by Casas and Carpenter was mixed, with councilmembers Megan Satterlee and Jarrett Fishpaw casting dissenting votes. Satterlee noted that the city had more pressing priorities to consider instead.

“I think we have to prioritize our limited resources, and this is just not where I’d put the priority right now,” Satterlee said.

Los Altos Library Commissioner Nancy Tucker also questioned the need for convening a task force and said the library district provides “outstanding, award-winning services.”

“If you’re happy with the services provided, why do you need to consider alternative service options?” asked Tucker, speaking as a resident and not on behalf of the commission. “And at a minimum, considering the options have wide-reaching implications for the entire community, why do you need to do this now, when a new city council will be seated very soon?”

Fellow Library Commissioner Darwin Poulos added that he was “somewhat disappointed” that the council didn’t seek the Library Commission’s viewpoint on the issue before placing it on the agenda.

Casas said the task force should simply be viewed as an exploration of the cities’ options and “not a predetermined outcome.”

“You need to have more than to just work off of your emotions. You need to have facts,” Casas said. “Unless you gather the facts, you’re just shooting from the hip.”

Councilman Ron Packard, meanwhile, lamented the district members’ lack of control over salary negotiations with county employees – including library employees – and feared escalating benefits and salaries would mean increased costs for residents down the road.

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