Library busier than ever but underfunded
Did you know that more than a thousand people visit the Chico branch of the Butte County Library every day it’s open? That’s more than 6,000 a week, more than all the other four county branches together.
That’s a lot of use for a public facility that relies on volunteers for much of its funding. The daily figure came from Derek Wolfgram, the new county library director (he’s been on the job three months), who was at the Chico branch on Sheridan Avenue Monday for a press conference.
The occasion was a praise-fest for Chico Friends of the Library, the volunteer group that raises the money to buy all the fiction, children’s, young-adult and large-type books in the library, as well as books on tape and CD, plus magazine subscriptions. A membership drive in February ("Love Your Library Month") brought in more than 100 new members, said Gerald Davis, the group’s treasurer.
It’s a sad commentary on our times that, without CFOL’s efforts, Chico wouldn’t have much of a library, and Wolfgram wanted to acknowledge them as well as those of Chico Community Bank, a CFOL sponsor.
At 23,000 square feet, Chico’s is the largest branch in the county system, and thanks to a grant from the city of Chico, it is open the most hours—65 compared with other branches’ 35 (Paradise and Oroville) or fewer (Gridley and Biggs).
But that doesn’t mean Chico’s library meets the need—or even comes close. Compare it, for example, with the Redding Public Library, a brand-new, light-filled building that had its grand opening on Saturday (March 3).
That facility comes in at a whopping 56,000 square feet. It’s got two levels. The upper contains nonfiction and adult fiction, as well as the reference section. It’s most like a traditional library, meant for quiet reading and study.
The lower level, in contrast, is for busier, more interactive uses such as the Teen Center, the Children’s Center, meeting rooms, the Shasta FOL bookstore, a café, the check-out area and some 80 computers, 59 of them for Internet access.
All five libraries in the Butte County system together have only 34 Internet computers. As anybody who spends much time in the Chico branch knows, there is usually a waiting line for its dozen terminals.
Redding’s library was brought about by a group of supporters who set out to obtain funding via Proposition 14, a 2000 bond measure. The group obtained more than $12 million in state funding. It then raised $8.4 million locally, about half from the city of Redding and Shasta County and half from civic organizations and individual donors.
Wolfgram of course wasn’t in Butte County when Prop. 14 passed—he worked in the Denver Public Library at the time—but he did note that a similar bond measure might be on the ballot in 2008. If so, he’d probably want to apply for funding.
“Our collections are continuing to grow, but there’s just not enough space,” he said in a phone interview. Use of public libraries perhaps surprisingly has increased in the Internet Age, he said. “Libraries are good places to learn how to do Internet research,” he explained, and people are discovering they are excellent for augmenting that research, as well.
Davis said the Friends have been saving their money with the idea of launching an expansion fund-raising drive early next year. Wolfgram is “a very energetic young man” and “we have high hopes for him,” he added.
Wolfgram said he would love it if more towns contributed to their libraries the way Chico does. More money would mean more open hours, and that would “help people get at what we have now, creating a cycle of success.” The more the library is open, the more people use it and the more they support it, he said.
Wolfgram has a wish list for the libraries a mile long, but as he put it, “A lot of things are very important, and all of them cost money. Of all the wonderful assets the library offers the community, a big checkbook isn’t one of them."Should nonprofit groups receiving city funds be able to back political candidates, if they don’t use any of the city’s money to do so?
That political hot potato got tossed around quite a bit during a Tuesday (March 6) City Council discussion, but you’d never know from listening that the true subject was the Chico Chamber of Commerce. That name was never spoken.
“Who are we referring to?” a frustrated Councilman Steve Bertagna asked at one point. “Let’s cut to the chase.” But it wasn’t necessary: Every councilmember knew who the potato was, even if some in the audience were mystified.
The chamber receives some $120,000 annually from the city to provide visitor and tourism services and another $20,000 to put on the Chico Airfest. (The amount is about three-tenths of 1 percent of the total city budget, Jim Goodwin, the chamber CEO, said later.) It also actively takes positions on local elections, endorsing business-friendly (usually Republican) candidates and distributing campaign funds from its political-action committee.
It insists it keeps the funding streams separate, as city policy currently requires, and uses only chamber-raised money to do political advocacy, but some local progressives (who generally don’t agree with its endorsements) think it has a conflict of interest.
Some background: During a Nov. 8, 2006, meeting of the council’s Internal Affairs Committee to consider staff recommendations for standardizing and stabilizing the methods used for funding community organizations, the committee voted to recommend that the council prohibit them from doing any political activities. The effect would be to force the chamber to stop backing candidates or face the threat of a funding cut-off.
Interestingly, only two of the three committee members, Councilman Andy Holcombe (who’s now mayor) and Councilwoman Ann Schwab, were present and voted at the Nov. 8 meeting. The third member, former Councilman Dan Herbert, was absent, perhaps because just two days earlier he’d lost his bid for re-election despite being endorsed by the chamber.
On Tuesday, Councilmen Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl both challenged the proposed policy change. “This has become a purely political thing designed to limit free speech,” Wahl said—again without mentioning whose free speech he was talking about.
Bertagna pointed out that firefighters and police officers get lots of money from the city, their whole salaries, in fact, and yet their unions are able to endorse and fund candidates. Why are only community organizations (meaning the chamber) going to be prohibited from doing that?
Holcombe suggested that he’d changed his mind somewhat about the policy. Now he wanted mostly to figure out ways to make it clear that no city funding was being used politically. In the end the council voted 5-2, with Wahl and Bertagna dissenting, to refer the matter to City Attorney Dave Frank for an opinion.
The council did approve most of the other changes in the method of funding community organizations, after listening to several speakers from the arts community. Henceforth, the application process will be simplified and organizations will be funded in two-year cycles and use outcome-based, rather than line-item, budgeting. That means they will focus more on setting goals and ways to measure success, rather than making sure they don’t overspend on pencils.
Historically, funding for community organizations has been somewhat arbitrary, with the city manager able to decrease the amount in tight budget years. Under a new plan approved by the council Tuesday, the city will stabilize funding by setting a baseline amount in 2008-10 and then adjusting future funding hikes to increases in the whole general fund budget. At the request of arts advocates, the council agreed to put off setting their baseline figure until updated financial figures are available in April.