Libraries face hard realities

Thomas Levinson/Daily Journal Joe Soracco and his daughter Mia, of Belmont, search for books to read in the Belmont Library.

While library services in the city of San Mateo are being reduced due to a $4 million budget deficit, county-run libraries in Foster City and Belmont, for instance, are seeing little changes to the services offered at those branches.

San Mateo has trimmed about 30 positions in all departments in the city, including two full-time positions from the city’s three libraries.

The eliminated library positions and service reductions will save the city about $253,000 in fiscal year 2009-10, said City Librarian Ben Ocon.

During the budget’s public hearing process, many San Mateo residents urged the City Council to keep library services intact, especially at the two branch libraries.

Hours at the two branch libraries at Marina and Hillsdale have suffered significant reductions in hours, however. Both libraries are now open only 27 hours a week. Previously, the Hillsdale branch was open for 35 hours a week and the Marina branch was open for 40 hours a week. The Main Library will also be closed for about 12 Sundays throughout the year, Ocon said.

But libraries run by the county, 12 in all, are facing little or no service changes at their branches.

Although, the county is struggling with falling revenue, only the collections budget was reduced by $100,000 and none of its 130 library positions were eliminated.

The fiscal year 2009-10 county budget earmarks $30.3 million for its 12 libraries. A good chunk of that money, about $9.7 million, is put into reserve accounts and $12 million is spent on salaries and benefits and $6.2 million is spent on services and supplies.

The poor economy, though, is bringing people to Belmont’s library on Alameda de las Pulgas, said Head Librarian Kathleen Beasley.

"We are getting record business,” Beasley said. "People are realizing what a bargain it is.”

Some of the Belmont library’s biggest draws are its music and movie collections. Compact discs and DVDs are the highest circulating items at the Belmont branch, Beasley said.

Books on tape are also a big draw, Beasley said.

Belmont resident Joe Soracco brings his daughter to the library regularly and said with the bad economy he has been buying less books.

"I like to get books to read and books on tape,” Soracco said.

The Belmont branch offers free computer time and patrons can even print out up to three pages a day. The county runs 12 libraries under a joint powers authority with 11 cities. County-run libraries had 2.3 million visitors in 2007-08 and circulated more than 4 million items. The Belmont Library is open for 60 hours a week Monday through Sunday.

Demand for services is up at the San Mateo libraries, Ocon said. In May, the libraries saw a 24 percent increase in visitors and 17 percent increase in checked-out materials compared to the same time last year.

San Mateo’s three libraries benefit from The San Mateo Public Library Foundation, but the Foundation has spent most of its efforts on raising $10 million to help pay for construction of the Main Library, Ocon said.

The original budget had earmarked $6.1 million for the city’s libraries but that number was reduced to $5.6 million as the city was forced to cut $4 million from its budget.

However, the city is still short $4 million for this budget and is relying on two November tax measures, a quarter-cent sales tax and 2 percent increase to the hotel occupancy tax.

If those two measures do not pass, the city will be forced to cut an additional $4 million from its operating budget, affecting all departments. The library will be forced to slash another 10 percent from its budget, Ocon said.

"Hours may be reduced more and some staff could be let go,” Ocon said.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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