Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 15, 2004

Pay the piper for parcel tax failure

Facing the music, paying the piper: Choose your cliché, but that’s what Santa Clara County library patrons will be doing for at least a year. Over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to learn the details of the impacts the failure of Measure B, the $42-a-year parcel tax to fund library operations, will have at South County’s two libraries.

The Joint Powers Authority, which serves as the board of directors for the nine-city Santa Clara County Library System, will meet on March 25 to begin the difficult process of absorbing a 21 percent revenue reduction.

“There will be layoffs. Books and materials budgets will be reduced,” Santa Clara County Head Librarian Melinda Cervantes said. “This is a library system that has been through this before. We’ll have to go through it again.”

Measure B was proposed to replace a $33.66 annual parcel tax that expires in 2005. Because it didn’t achieve the ridiculously high margin of two-thirds voter approval, our award-winning, efficiently run library system will have to make do with $5.3 million dollars less each year.

More than 61 percent of voters supported Measure B. But because of the patently undemocratic super-majority requirement for some taxes, the minority of voters are dictating to the majority what kind of library services we’ll have in Santa Clara County.

It’s interesting to note that the $15-billion state bond and the $12-billion dollar school construction bond needed a simple majority, and the $108-million Gavilan Community College bond needed a 55 percent approval. It’s hard to justify all the different levels of voter approval floating around in California politics.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

“This is so far below what we expected,” said Morgan Hill City Councilman Steve Tate, who serves on the JPA, and had expected a yes vote of 69 percent. “We did better than Gavilan did (Measure E).”

Despite the injustice of a measure that garnered 61 percent voter approval being a failure, JPA trustees will have to deal with the unfortunate reality. They’ll have to come up with ways to cut spending by at least 21 percent. Not only that, in the near future they may have to deal with further cuts from the state of California.

So, South County residents, look for your libraries to be open – at the most – a meager 30 hours a week; they’re currently open 54 hours a week. Both libraries are currently closed on Sundays; they’ll likely add another day when the doors are locked all day as a result of the failure of Measure B.

That, of course, means layoffs, because fewer open hours means fewer staff members needed. Here’s hoping your favorite librarian or clerk still has a job in a month or two.

Reduced hours also mean South County’s two libraries will be more crowded as the ever-increasing number of patrons are forced to use the libraries in a much smaller amount of time. The Morgan Hill and Gilroy libraries are among the most heavily used in the Santa Clara County Library system.

But the repercussion I’m most worried about is the reduced buying power the cuts will mean. The circulating items – books, periodicals, CD-ROMs, videos – and the reference materials are the lifeblood of the library, are its most precious resource, and we’re going to have less of it.

Some are advocating a ballot measure to reduce the approval level for library taxes to 55 percent. Personally, I think any proposition – taxes, bonds or otherwise – should need a simple majority to pass.

The earliest election at which the library system can ask the voters again to pass a parcel tax is November 2005, well after the current parcel tax expires. There’s just no way to avoid the cuts that will disproportionately affect the poor and low-income families – those for whom Internet access, book purchases and magazine and newspaper subscriptions are unattainable luxuries.

After we all have an object lesson in how valuable our libraries are to our communities, perhaps then enough of us will get behind a new parcel tax that will pass with whatever majority is needed.

But we’ll have to pay the piper for Measure B’s failure for at least a year first.

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