After a detail-filled debate, the Santa Barbara City Council punted the branch library fee issue back to the county on May 15 with a request to maintain the current charge.

The City of Santa Barbara has yet to be paid in full for its management of branch libraries, and it’s not happy about it. And the city is especially unhappy with the Board of Supervisors’ decision in April to limit what it can charge for managing them.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Pam Antil, assistant city administrator, projected an attention-grabbing number, a stark visual that the city was short $191,074 in the library admin fee reimbursement. In order to be made whole, Santa Barbara wants more than $40,000 from each of its branches — Montecito, Carpinteria, Solvang, and Buellton. Library money is short everywhere, however; Carpinteria and Montecito are already redlining severely their financial reserves.

For a bit of background, the City of Santa Barbara runs branch libraries outside city limits and charges them a management fee. It’s been that way for about 100 years, since before the other cities formed. Most of the money for the branches comes from the county in a per capita payment, some from the cities, and quite a lot as donations. Santa Barbara gives its two libraries — Eastside and Central — $4 million. No other city comes close.

Backed by a consultant report that observed the county gave nearly as much as the city when it came to libraries — $3.5 million for all county libraries, including in the Lompoc and Santa Maria regions — the supervisors voted that any management fee was limited to 20 percent of the county per capita total (calculated at $8.20 this fiscal year).

That administration charge had been sticking in the collective craw of branch library boosters for the past year or more because the city had wanted to double it. They questioned its veracity and composition. City staffers firmly asserted it was less than the city’s actual costs.

The supes also sidelined 5 percent of the per capita in April and gave it to the county Library Advisory Committee to fund underserved community branches. They further decided the library zones could no longer include donations in the calculation of the 20 percent. City Administrator Paul Casey told the council that those restrictions equalled an admin fee of 6 percent, lower than the city’s historic 9 percent charge.

“They created this mess with an arbitrary motion made upon a public comment that has a $191,000 impact on the city budget,” City Administrator Paul Casey exclaimed. “I agree with your sentiment,” he prompted the councilmembers, “of sending it back to them and saying, ‘You solve it.'”

Santa Barbara City Administrator Paul Casey protested that the county's decision was taken without notice or staff input and urged the City Council to take action.

Much of the problem underlying the financial aggravations and aggressions is that much less money is coming from far fewer sources. That’s how it’s been since the crunch of 2008 and after the state Public Library Fund closed down in 2012. The city and county library advisory boards have watched the reserves built up during the prior halcyon days slowly evaporate.

In the immediate fight, Councilmember Erik Friedman, a member of the city’s Library Board for many years, said he felt the city had been “double-crossed.” The council had agreed to a middle-ground fee increase last year, in part because of the fatal consequences to some branches, and in part awaiting clarity from the county consultant on best practices in other library systems and an overview of the county system.

The councilmembers’ ensuing debate teetered back and forth between negotiating with the county and “pulling the plug” on the branch libraries, with asides about city taxpayers and budget timing. After an hour of proposals and clarifications, Gregg Hart, whose father had been the city’s library director, suggested they simply send the county a letter asking that it honor the agreement on the status quo going into the next fiscal year. With the exception of Jason Dominguez, the councilmembers all agreed.

Should the county decide to make the change, the 13.5 percent fee failed to make the city whole last year and will likely fall short again this year. Even with the onetime infusions from the county — $360,000 last fiscal year, half given and half on emergency reserve — spending at almost all the branches and libraries outpaces revenue. Given the many services the libraries provide, from free books to literacy tutors and community meeting spaces, keeping all the doors open was vital, the council agreed. How all the hours will be maintained at the libraries now cycles back to the county and the branches’ other funding sources.


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