WALNUT CREEK -- Hours at the city's two libraries will likely be cut back by 14 hours a week at each location beginning in July unless the city can somehow find $700,000 in the next 45 days.

The City Council decided Tuesday that if a sustainable source of money cannot be found to pay for the 21 hours per week the city currently pays for, then, due to the expiration of the Measure Q parcel tax in 2010, library hours will be cut back to 42 hours -- currently at 56 hours -- a week at each location. What days the library would be closed, or hours shortened, or if both libraries would even have the same hours is something that will be figured out later if the cut in hours takes place.

The city would continue to pay for seven hours per week at each library for the next two fiscal years, with money left over from Measure Q funds.

"We are tonight starting the process of dismantling the component of this city -- and it's just really unpleasant and hard," said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Simmons.

The Contra Costa County Library system provides all cities with 35 open hours at its libraries; it's up to cities to pay for any hours beyond that. Walnut Creek's two libraries are the most heavily used in the county's library system, according to county records.

All council members said they would like to keep the libraries open at the current hours or even add hours, but the money is not there.

"This is so painful," said Councilwoman Cindy Silva, who choked up with tears describing young children having their first reading experience at Walnut Creek libraries.

"It is an active place, it's a place where people can meet and socialize and they can educate themselves ... this has been a fundamental part of our community."

Mayor Kristina Lawson questioned whether other cuts should be made in the general fund budget to pay for the library hours. Simmons said he would entertain that idea as long as there was a sustainable source of money for funding the hours for the foreseeable future.

But he still believed -- and others agreed -- it was necessary to make a decision on how the hours should be cut back, because the county needs an answer by the end of May.

City leaders are currently wrestling with a budget gap of more than $4 million -- $1.1 million of which the council cannot agree on how to close. Finding an additional $700,000 at this point seems unlikely.

Lawson said she would be willing to use some of the millions in one-time money the city is slated to receive over the next two years to pay for the additional library hours.

But other council members reiterated, as they said a week ago, that they do not want to use one-time money to pay for any ongoing services.

Some library supporters hope any loss in hours will be a short-term situation.

"Free public libraries are an essential underpinning to our democracy," said Jim Moore, president of the Walnut Creek Library Foundation.

"The foundation board recognizes, however, that the city's current fiscal situation -- which contains the probability of structural deficits throughout a 10-year forecast period -- suggests the needs for some short-term accommodation to this financial reality."

Moore and others have also been outspoken on their support for a half-cent sales tax increase measure be placed on the November ballot.

Years ago, city staff alerted the council that there was no plan to pay for the open hours once Measure Q expired in 2010. In fact, the leftover Measure Q money was not expected to last this long.

And it's not just the additional hours that costs Walnut Creek money when it comes to libraries. Because Walnut Creek built and owns the downtown library, it is solely responsible for the operation and maintenance cost for that building, expected to total $368,676 in 2014-15.

As for the Ygnacio Valley Library, the city leases it from the county and is estimated to owe $135,969 for maintenance next year. Add the additional hours the city currently pays for and next year the cost to operate, maintain and keep the library open 56 hours a week would be more than $1 million per year.

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

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