Construction at the Santa Barbara Central Library's Michael Towbes Plaza Credit: Courtesy S.B. Public Library website

It’s been a tough few years for the Santa Barbara Public Library, with the pandemic and a three-phase overhaul, which has forced the downtown location to be closed — or at least severely limited in its operations — since last August.

Most recently, the library announced that the Anapamu entrance would be blocked off for the next four to six weeks, starting May 5, as construction crews begin laying down pavement for the multimillion-dollar Michael Towbes Plaza.

Then from May 8-11, the location will be completely closed once again due to work on the new ADA elevator — after reopening and closing several times in January, February, and March due to excavation for the same elevator.

But despite the closures and complications, library department staff have remained flexible and persistent in offering as many resources as possible during that time, adjusting with more than 40 Library on the Go events a month and fostering a blossoming community at the Eastside Library, which has become the de-facto home base for many of the library’s literacy programs.

On Friday, Library Director Jessica Cadiente stopped by Santa Barbara City Council for a departmental budget breakdown, where she laid out just how much the past few years have affected the library financially, and how the department would be managing going forward with a budget that has been stripped to bare bones.

“We were operating on a razor’s edge when COVID hit,” Cadiente said.

The library adjusted by reducing its hours, leaning on off-site programming, and training staff members to work multiple positions, with a focus on promoting from within the department as a response to the challenges in recruiting workers from out of town.

“We’ve heard a lot about ‘homegrown’ in other departmental budgets, and that has really worked in the library department as well,” Cadiente said. “It is impossible to attract professional librarians; the cost of living here is very expensive.”

The library had an unusually expensive year in 2023 compared to previous years, much in part due to more than $12 million spent on capital improvement projects, including the new plaza, elevator, and renovations to the lower staff level. All together, the library brought in just more than $3 million in revenues in the last fiscal year compared to $22 million in expenses.

Another significant impact to the library’s budget was the city’s move away from the Black Gold system, combined with the fact that other county libraries have left the Santa Barbara Public Library umbrella in recent years.

When Cadiente took over as director in 2016, the city system oversaw branches in Carpinteria, Goleta, Buellton, and Solvang. But all four locations since have left the city system, causing a “drastic” reduction in the county’s admin fee, which dropped from more than $183,000 in 2022 to $65,000 in 2024 and 2025, as the Montecito branch is the only remaining location outside of Santa Barbara still run by the city.

In 2024, the library’s expenditures will drop to a more modest $10 million, with the largest drop in spending coming in capital projects, with $2 million earmarked toward smaller upgrades to the library’s roof terrace, lobby, and Faulkner Gallery.

Across the board, the library’s budget is reduced from 2023 to 2024: in salaries, benefits, supplies and services, allocated costs, special projects, and non-capital equipment. 

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The library’s slimmer budget is in part a response to the reduced hours during construction, but also due to the city’s need to find $2.7 million in departmental budget cuts to reduce its structural deficit to a more manageable $1.1 million before adopting next year’s budget. In order to do this, the City Council is looking at each departmental budget under a microscope to find areas to cut.

The library is pitching in to help the city meet its goal by cutting more than $225,000 over the next two years by removing an emergency fund for the Library on the Go vehicle and slashing the “digital collection budget” — two items Cadiente said could be reduced without affecting staff levels or operating hours.

Currently, the Central Library is staffed to be open for 36 hours a week, while the Eastside Library has been open for 42 hours a week. But making this work was no easy task, Cadiente said, and the heavy workload and inconsistent hours have caused strain among staff and made it almost impossible to keep hourly workers.

Councilmember Eric Friedman — who was on the library board for more than a decade before serving as the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation’s board president from 2014 to 2017 — questioned whether that type of workload would be sustainable over time.

Cadiente explained that with the budget in its current state, there would be no way for the library to return to its full seven-day week after construction. 

The Eastside Library, which is able to be open six days a week during construction because staff can be reassigned to that location, will only be able to operate four days a week, at most, after construction is finished. To maintain its current schedule of six days a week, she said, the Eastside Library would need to hire at least two positions that would cost an estimated $80,000.

For the Central Library to restore its operations to the pre-pandemic schedule of 55 hours per week, Cadiente said the department would need to hire a senior librarian and several library technician positions, which would require at least $600,000 more. Without any changes, the library could be forced to limit its hours, services, or events even more than it already has.

Several members of the library board and Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation spoke during public comment, urging the council to see the greater social impacts of the library and asking that the city set an example for the community by making the library a priority and bringing it back to full capacity. 

“Our community looks to City Hall to set a tone for what matters at the heart of our city,” said Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation Director Lauren Trujillo. “As you embark on this budget season, I ask that you consider your role in shaping the next era of the Santa Barbara Public Library.”

Councilmembers Friedman and Kristen Sneddon both spoke in support of the library being spared from being the target of the city’s budget cuts, with Sneddon saying that the department was already “operating on next to nothing.” 

“I think our community deserves more than a basic library,” Friedman said. “How we get there is going to require some tough decisions, and that’s why I’m looking at all departments, all the budgets that are coming, to look at the entire picture.”

The city will continue with a string of departmental budget work sessions, finance committee hearings, and public meetings to discuss the budget over the next month before it is officially adopted by the City Council on June 13. The Michael Towbes Plaza is on track to be unveiled in a grand opening on October 21.

“We are looking like we will meet that deadline — it’s very exciting,” Cadiente said.


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