CORRECTION (Published 5/9/2013, Walnut Creek Journal)

A story about Walnut Creek library funding contained incorrect information. Walnut Creek libraries are each open a total of 56 hours a week; the city pays for 21 of those hours, not 35. The county pays for 35 hours a week. The 21 city-funded hours are in danger of being cut next year.

WALNUT CREEK -- There is a fiscal cliff ahead for Walnut Creek libraries, according to library advocates.

By next spring, Walnut Creek will run out of savings it uses to help pay for the 56 hours a week the two city libraries are open. That means library hours could be reduced significantly.

The city's two libraries -- Ygnacio Valley Library and the main Walnut Creek Library -- were the focus of a special Saturday morning City Council meeting. Many library advocates pleaded with the council to continue to fund the libraries at the 56 hours a week they are open. The county pays for 35 hours of operation a week.

"It would be a terrible waste to have invested so much and time and money only to reduce the hours by more than a third because of the fiscal difficulties that we face," said Walnut Creek Library Foundation President Jim Moore.

The foundation helped raise $5 million for the new $35 million downtown library and parking garage that opened in 2010.

But by next spring the city's funding that subsidizes the county and pays for an additional 21 hours a week at the city's libraries will dry up. And as of now, there is no plan for how to continue to fund those hours, which allow the libraries to be open a total of 56 hours per week.

Though council members seemed to agree that libraries are important and trying to fund the additional 21 hours a week is crucial.

A $22 parcel tax known as Measure Q, which expired in 2010, paid for the additional 21 hours of operation at the county-run libraries since 2002. When the new downtown library closed for construction for two years in 2008, revenue from the tax was saved because there was no library to keep open. Those savings are how the libraries have stayed open for the additional hours since 2010. But those savings will run out by next spring.

Diane Longshore, former chairwoman of the Measure Q campaign and former library foundation board member, said what concerns her is the city's focus seems short-term. When Measure Q was passed, 70 percent of the vote was positive, showing the community values its libraries, she said. The city needs to plan now to fund the library hours for years to come, Longshore said.

"The clock is ticking very quickly, if in fact you need to replace those (Measure Q) funds and you pass a measure. ... there is a lag time before you will see those funds," she said. "The support is out there. I would encourage you to start the planning process to replace the Measure Q funds."

It takes $4 million to operate the two libraries, the county funds $3 million and then the city contributes $1 million for operations and maintenance and the additional hours. The city owns the downtown library, but Ygnacio Valley is owned by the county.

The council reviewed the method and model through which library services are provided. The city pays for operations and maintenance for both libraries, though for the Ygnacio Valley Library the city is charged a yearly fee because the city doesn't own the building. Operation and maintenance costs for the downtown library are $375,000 a year. Because the city built that facility, it is solely responsible for covering those costs.

Library advocates, most of whom sit on the foundation board, told the council Saturday that the city should not just be looking at ways to save but also ways to increase revenue. They point to the possibility of another parcel tax or sales tax increase. Supporters said they stand ready to help the city get more revenue to keep libraries open.

Mayor Pro Tem Kristina Lawson said that, for the time being, the current model of funding should continue, though she wants more study on whether options such as privatization would be more cost-effective.

"I would not be comfortable saying today that for all eternity we should continue doing it the way we are doing it," she said.

And the libraries' being closed on Sundays is "a travesty," Lawson said.

Councilman Bob Simmons said the community receives huge value from libraries and the hours must be funded. He didn't agree that now was a good time to study privatizing the library.

"I think we should continue to use Measure Q funds and I think we need to provide direction that says when that's expired that we will be looking to the general fund, that is a significant impact to the general fund," he said.

Councilman Justin Wedel disagreed, saying privatization should be examined.

"Not looking at all options in front of us would not be fiscally prudent of the council," he said. "We have major fiscal issues we are facing."

Mayor Cindy Silva said the model the city has now is the most cost-effective, and privatizing should only be looked at at the county level.

It's time for the council to be leaders and create a plan to raise more money, because cutting will not allow the city to provide all the services people expect, Silva said. A $2 million budget gap every year for the foreseeable future is likely -- and the gap could be even larger once other needs such as employee pay raises and infrastructure costs are factored in, she said.

"I believe it's time to push forward," Silva said.

But Lawson slowed the discussion, saying talk of a new constant revenue stream was not on the agenda.

"We are not here today to ... have our staff plan for a tax measure," she said.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.

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