Whistling in the wind

Library supporters ask for more funding from council members whose minds are already made up

In a meeting that was essentially a shorter version of its all-day budget hearing on June 16, the Chico City Council adopted a final 2009-10 budget reflecting a 3 percent overall reduction in expenses and a three-tiered set of contingency plans in case the city’s revenue picture, now down by 6.5 percent, becomes even more dire.

And once again the meeting was dominated by discussion of City Manager Dave Burkland’s recommendation to cut $55,000—or about one-thousandth of the total $48.5 million budget—from last year’s allocation to the Chico branch of the county library of $187,000, bringing it down to $132,000.

Thing is, the council voted back then, 4-3, to support Burkland’s recommendation. There was no reason to think any member of the majority had changed his or her mind, but the red-shirted library supporters who filled council chambers certainly hoped so—or at least to convince one of them to do so.

Before any of them got a chance to speak, however, council members made it clear the earlier split was still solid. During the staff report on the budget, most of which was spent discussing the library allocation, council members devoted much of the time arguing for and defending their positions on the matter.

Councilmembers Mary Flynn, Jim Walker and Andy Holcombe and Mayor Ann Schwab all expressed various reasons for cutting the $55,000, much as they had on June 16, and Councilmembers Tom Nickell, Scott Gruendl and, especially, Larry Wahl all argued for increased funding. There was little or nothing in the arguments that was different from what they’d said earlier.

By the time the staff report was concluded, after a full 90 minutes, it was time for members of the public to speak. But it was clear by then how the council members were going to vote, so library supporters’ words seemed like so much whistling in the wind.

That didn’t stop more than a dozen of them from making impassioned appeals to keep the library open as many hours as possible. Several talked about how it had been closed the day before, Monday, for the first time in more than a year, and more than 800 people had been turned away.

Typical of them was Marian Miller, who identified herself as a member of the Library Advisory Board. The library, she said, used to be “a sad place” that was “open odd hours and didn’t have many new materials. … But last year it was right where we wanted it to be. It took a long time to get there, and now we’re sliding back to that ‘sad place.’”

Television news anchorwoman Debbie Cobb, apparently tired of waiting to speak, left early, but not before asking City Clerk Debbie Presson to read her comments into the record. She chided the council for “seeming to have made up your minds beforehand,” adding, “You should let the people speak first.”

There was a brief procedural kerfuffle following the public portion of the hearing, when Flynn hurriedly made a motion to approve the budget as presented. Wahl then offered a substitute motion to restore the $55,000, which Schwab refused to honor, saying a motion was already on the floor. Wahl insisted his motion took precedence. When Schwab called for a break to research Roberts Rules, someone in the audience yelled, “Call the library!”

Turned out Wahl was right, but his motion failed anyway, 3-4.

There was some somber discussion to the effect that the city probably should begin implementing the first contingency tier, which calls for more budget cuts and delayed spending. And one speaker said the city eventually was going to have to address its ever-growing salary-and-benefits and pension costs. But the council ended up taking a wait-and-see position, approving the budget package 6-1, with Wahl dissenting.