New library fee spurs soul-searching by board
Palo Alto and Mountain View residents who make use of the county's vast library collection available in Los Altos libraries will have to pay an $80 library card fee beginning July 1.
The unpopular fee was approved in April by the Santa Clara County Library District Joint Powers Authority, which operates the Woodland library at 1975 Grant Road and the Los Altos library at 13 S. San Antonio Road, among six others in smaller Santa Clara County cities.
The county's collection of 1.8 million books, videos, DVDs, CDs and audio-books is a major resource for 16,000 card holders in Palo Alto and Mountain View, who can check out up to 100 items at a time from county libraries in Los Altos and have materials delivered from any of the other six county-run libraries within a week's time.
Los Altos officials criticized the new fee, especially in regards to how it will hurt Foothill and De Anza College students who live outside Los Altos and Cupertino and will not be able to use the county's collection any longer.
Jean Mordo, Los Altos Hills mayor and NCLA chair, said the $80 fee was "not meant to raise money for services, it's really to reduce the number of non-residents coming in." He admitted to having voted for the fee as a member of the county library board, but said he regrets casting that vote.
The move spurred Los Altos officials on the North County Library Authority board to decide Monday to formally examine the possibility of Los Altos withdrawing from the county system to create its own library service using the relatively high property tax revenue in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Los Altos mayor Ron Packard criticized the high costs of county employee union contracts, which also forbid using volunteers to do work done by laid-off library employees.
County-run libraries are planning to enhance services to residents within the library district as circulation drops by over 40 percent, freeing up employees, said county head librarian Melanie Cervantes. The county reports that 43 percent of the system's 357,000 users live outside the county library district. Part of the problem is that county libraries in and around San Jose are open on days of the week when San Jose city libraries are closed. .
"What I hear most from users from other cities, and that is mostly Palo Alto and Mountain View residents, is that they really like our collection," said community librarian Jane Cronkhite said in an email.
She told the board that there was an "imbalance" because the percentage of Los Altos residents who use Mountain View's city library is much smaller.
Mountain View's director of library services, Rosanne Macek, said in an email that Los Altos residents account for 4 percent of the Mountain View library's circulation of 1.8 million items. In Los Altos libraries, 47 percent of a 1.7 million circulation is by non-residents, mostly from Mountain View and Palo Alto, Cronkite said in an email.
County library district residents may also be hit with a fee soon — in city-run libraries.
"I have met with all the library directors from nearby city libraries and we are taking a wait-and-see approach," Macek said in an email, adding that they will evaluate usage levels at the end of the first quarter of the new fiscal year. "If we see a considerable increase in our usage we could consider charging a fee to County Library district residents later next year."
County officials said in a press release that the $80 fee is necessary because of state budget cuts, and that the fee amount is average for libraries across the country. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed state budget cuts funding to public libraries, including funds that the county had been receiving as a reimbursement for non-resident use of the county libraries. The county reports that those state funds once totaled $2 million a year.
But on Monday evening Cervantes said that the fee would cause the county to actually lose state money because a reduction in non-residents would mean a cut in state funding of at least $100,000. She added that she could not say with confidence that county library employees would not be laid off as circulation drops.
The Santa Clara County Library District Joint Powers Authority Board adopted an exemption for preschool through 12th grade students in school districts that overlap the county library district, including Mountain View and Los Alto High School students and several hundred Mountain View children who attend Los Altos elementary schools. But the free service for students will come with a limit of five items per student.
Mountain View and Palo Alto libraries do not charge non-residents. Both cities are part of a state-wide network of libraries that share materials.
Email Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com