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Proposed cuts to San Diego library hours come with trade-offs to boost activities and materials

A visitor uses a computer at the La Jolla/Riford Library in October.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Mayor Todd Gloria says first library cuts in a decade are necessary to cope with a ‘structural’ budget deficit.

Mayor Todd Gloria is proposing to reduce regular hours at San Diego libraries — including the La Jolla/Riford Library — for the first time in more than a decade, but the budget-cutting proposal comes with several trade-offs, including more money for activities and for materials such as books and videos.

Gloria’s proposal also includes making homework tutorials and book talks available online when libraries are closed, and a pilot project allowing partial access to three branches in low-income areas during closed hours.

The changes would save $5.6 million overall, shrinking the library system’s annual budget from $59.7 million to $54.1 million.

Slashing library hours by 23 percent — which would eliminate hours on Sundays and Mondays — would save $6.9 million. All 36 branches would be open 42.5 hours per week instead of 55.

City officials said closing two days in a row makes sense for staff, and Sundays and Mondays are typically the least busy days.

The proposed cuts would eliminate nearly 100 jobs, many of them part time. Gloria hasn’t said whether the workers would be laid off or diverted to other city jobs.

Gloria’s proposed reduction in library hours is far from a done deal. A final budget won’t be approved until June, and a nearly identical proposal last spring by then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer was eventually reversed by the City Council.

Gloria’s proposed cuts would make library spending just over 3.1 percent of San Diego’s proposed $1.73 billion budget. That’s far below the 6 percent minimum goal the City Council set for library spending in 2002.

While that goal has never been achieved, the library budget surpassed 5 percent one time and has hovered around 3.5 percent since Faulconer restored cuts from the 2008 recession seven years ago.

But Faulconer proposed cutting library hours before he knew the city would receive $248 million in federal pandemic aid last spring. Gloria is proposing the cuts after finding out the city is receiving $306 million in federal aid this spring.

A spokeswoman for Gloria said library cuts were necessary because the mayor inherited a “structural budget deficit” from Faulconer, in which ongoing expenses have been consistently higher than ongoing revenue.

“We need to make reductions and find efficiencies to eliminate this imbalance and in light of the ongoing economic impacts of the pandemic,” said the spokeswoman, Jen Lebron. “We will continue to weigh priorities of the public and the City Council with our limited resources.”

Gloria is proposing to spend $193 million of the $306 million this year to balance the fiscal 2021 budget and proposed fiscal 2022 budget, leaving $113 million for the fiscal 2023 budget and possibly beyond.

If faced with opposition to the library cuts and other proposed reductions, the council may choose this spring to shrink the $113 million Gloria wants to save so that some proposed cuts can be reversed.

Patrick Stewart, chief executive of the San Diego Library Foundation, said he is simultaneously troubled by the proposed cuts and enthusiastic about increased funding for activities and materials, which his group has lobbied for.

“The magnitude of the cuts is large,” Stewart said. “Eliminating hours and reducing days eliminates opportunities for children, homeless people, seniors and others to access services they need.”

But the investments the mayor is proposing are encouraging, he said.

Gloria’s budget plan would add $1.3 million total to boost library budgets for activities and materials, including electronic books, to make online programs available during closed hours and to grant special access to the three branches in low-income areas.

The library’s books and materials budget, which is among the lowest nationally among similar-size cities, would spike from $1.8 million to $2.5 million.

And the budget for programming, which includes activities such as author readings and homework help, would double from $200,000 to $400,000.

Making the library experience more robust and beneficial to residents can matter as much as hours, Stewart said.

“It’s not enough to be open, it’s what you do when you are open,” he said.

Stewart also hailed the city’s plan to experiment with “open-plus,” a way to allow branch access during closed hours.

“A keypad is installed on the door and patrons can access the library by entering their library card and a PIN,” Lebron said. “This would allow us to extend hours in the morning or evening so that patrons could pick up holds or access computers.”

Gloria plans to spend $100,000 installing open-plus at one branch each in the city’s three lowest-income council districts: 4, 8 and 9.

Stewart said the foundation would consider providing money to increase the number of branches with open-plus. ◆