Budget crisis threatens Siskiyou County libraries

Facing a $3.7 million shortfall, Siskiyou County, California, will consider closing its entire library system and slicing budgets across the board, resulting in possible layoffs of 50 employees.

County Administrative Officer Brian McDermott will recommend Tuesday that the county Board of Supervisors trim $716,330 from the budget by closing the Yreka main library and 10 library branches around the county, for the fiscal year starting July 1.

"There could very well be a public outcry (about libraries)," McDermott said in a phone interview. "The heat should be applied only to me, not the board. It's all ugly. I'm in charge of bringing in a balanced budget. ... My idea is to (cut) nonmandated services."

In addition to the library closures, McDermott said, he will propose elimination of the county museum, two farm offices and the county's contribution to county fire service. The fire service, he noted, gets most of its revenues from property taxes.

These cuts would trim a total of $863,000 from the deficit. The rest — almost $3 million — would come through across-the-board cuts to general fund departments, he said, without "crippling" essential services such as the sheriff's department, jail, juvenile hall and probation.

Board Chairwoman Marcia Armstrong said the shortfall comes from "a perfect storm of state reductions in revenues to counties, increased salary expenses from union agreements" and the struggling economy.

Nancy O'Connor of the Siskiyou County Friends of the Library assailed the proposed action, saying McDermott and the board could develop new revenue sources, reduce department head salaries and reduce the sheriff's department but "they're just cutting."

"They're going to take away the entire (library) budget," she said. "Libraries are just a small amount in the budget."

McDermott said if libraries weren't closed, it would increase the level of across-the-board cuts to other departments by one-fourth. He said he did not yet know what the final percentage would be on the across-the-board cuts.

Closing libraries would eliminate nearly 14 positions — 28 percent of the total proposed layoffs.

"Everyone's going to be very upset and sad," said O'Connor. "The Board of Supervisors is not seen as very responsive to this and they just go along with what the administrator suggests."

Interim County Librarian Lisa Musgrove called the proposed closures "very shocking to me" and predicted a "pretty severe public reaction."

"We have a strong group of library supporters who really love the library," she said.

Musgrove is putting together an alternative library budget, she said, that would protect core services with reduced staffing and hours — and keep some branches open.

McDermott said the proposed cuts are preliminary and could change after he confers with department heads and hears comments from the board.

As to whether library closure would be a temporary step that could be reversed when the economy picks up, McDermott said, "I would like to think so. It's all because of reduced revenue from up to 30 different sources, along with increased costs."

McDermott also has asked county employee unions to skip next year's scheduled cost of living adjustment, but said "to date, they haven't been interested."

Armstrong denied the sheriff's office would be spared cuts. She also said the county in recent months has offered early retirements with vacated positions left unfilled and noted that the board members and department heads had not received cost-of-living increases for two years.

Armstrong said that as a result of previous cuts, library supporters have been working on creation of a library district that would be funded with a public levy, but it is not in place yet.

O'Connor said the library provides many services in the small communities of Siskiyou County beyond its book collection, including service to schools, a summer reading program, a literacy program, story hour, the teen library, lending of CDs and DVDs and a Gates Foundation program that brings computers to people who can't afford them.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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