Grand Jury: How a Community Center Became a ‘Library’ – TPG Online Daily

Editor’s note: This is an edited and abridged version of the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report. For the full report, see:
In 2016, residents within the Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ system approved Measure S, a special tax that, over time, would raise $67 million. As a special tax, Measure S funds were restricted for use in modernizing, upgrading, and repairing local library branches.
Grand Jury Times Publishing Group Inc tpgonlinedaily.comThe Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors elected to use Measure S funds to complete a Santa Cruz County Parks project they call the “Live Oak Library Annex.”
The Annex (currently being constructed) is about one mile from the existing Live Oak Branch Library. The Annex is, in essence, a collection of study and education spaces with publicly available computers and internet that will be managed by County Parks staff.
Santa Cruz Public Libraries (SCPL) will not have librarians or books for loan at this location.
This report explores the SCPL’s development of a master plan for the improvement of its 10 library branches, which led to the need for a funding source, Measure S.
The SCPL’s effort to obtain the cooperation of elected officials in urging their constituents to support Measure S led to a shift away from SCPL’s priorities.
The result was the County’s unchallenged decision to use library funds to expand a nearby community center.
The Grand Jury has concluded that the Annex is an expansion of the Live Oak Community Center and not an expansion of the Live Oak Branch Library.
Following the State’s elimination of redevelopment agencies, County Parks was left without a ready source of capital funds needed to complete the vision of the Community Center.
Measure S filled the void.
The Grand Jury recommends the County Board of Supervisors reassess its decision to use Measure S funds to improve the Live Oak Community Center and restore the voters’ trust.
The Grand Jury decided to investigate after reading an opinion letter published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel suggesting that this was an inappropriate use of library funds.
Measure S Ballot Language
In June 2016, the SCPL asked voters within its service area to approve Measure S:
To modernize, upgrade, and repair local libraries in Santa Cruz, Aptos, Live Oak, Scotts Valley, Boulder Creek, Capitola, Felton and La Selva Beach—replace failing roofs, outdated bathrooms, electrical systems, structurally damaged facilities; support growing use by children, seniors, veterans, and others; expand access to modern technology; and construct/expand facilities where necessary; shall Santa Cruz Libraries Facilities Financing Authority issue $67,000,000 in bonds for Santa Cruz Libraries Facilities Financing Authority Community Facilities District No. 2016-1; levy a special tax annually on parcels within the Community Facilities District; establish an initial appropriations limit; and assure mandatory accountability?
Just over 70 percent of voters approved Measure S.
Property owners within the SCPL service area are assessed an annual parcel tax that will yield $67 million in library funds. These funds may be used only for the purposes stated in the ballot question.
This limitation on use makes Measure S a special tax, requiring two-thirds voter approval.
Grand Jury Times Publishing Group Inc tpgonlinedaily.comFor ballot revenue measures, the two-thirds voter approval requirement is risky. It is estimated that 25% of voters will vote “no’’ on any tax proposal, so a general tax requiring voter approval of 50% plus one is the easier path.
On the other hand, a special tax provides voters with assurance their tax dollars will be spent on the specific purpose stated in the ballot. If the proposed use of the tax is popular with voters, the risk is acceptable.
For Measure S, polling was favorable. The SCPL spent almost $570,000 on consultants and legal advice to get Measure S on the ballot. The SCPL’s investment in Measure S paid off at the ballot box, but some voters are left wondering what they agreed to pay for.
Facilities Master Plan
In 2013, the SCPL’s operating budget was recovering from a significant funding loss from the 2008 recession. The SCPL was starting to restore services, hours, and staffing under a Compromise Service Model, which:
Not all library branches had the facilities to support this model. Minimal staffing requires self-service stations and a centrally located service desk. An investment in facility upgrades to support efficiency could save operating funds over time. Addressing substandard building needs would redirect scarce operating funds to staff and programming, rather than leaky roofs and high utility bills.
The SCPL needed to formally assess its branch facility needs to estimate this financial investment. A 2013 assessment found most library branches were in disrepair.
From this assessment, the SCPL developed—and in April 2013 its governing board approved—the Santa Cruz Public Libraries Facilities Master Plan 2014–2023. The SCPL staff summarized its consultant’s findings:
Building & Operations Are Separate
The SCPL does not own any of the 10 library branches it operates, nor does SCPL collect or control the operating funds it uses.
The SCPL leases buildings from the city or County in which the branch is located (Member Agencies).
The SCPL uses funds from the Operating Authority to pay for operation and maintenance of its facilities.
The Live Oak Branch Library is an example of SCPL’s dependence on its Member Agencies’ building funds. In 1989, the County established the Live Oak Library in a local shopping center. This was one of the 10 libraries SCPL began operating upon its formation in 1996. In 1998, Santa Cruz County’s Redevelopment Agency bought the former Albatross Restaurant for use as the Live Oak interim Library. In 2006, the Redevelopment Agency expanded the Live Oak interim Library to 13,500 square feet and it became the Live Oak Branch Library.
County redevelopment funds proved to be a flexible and ready source of funds that improved the lives of Live Oak residents. The SCPL benefited as well.
While SCPL commissioned the Master Plan as the blueprint for use of Measure S funds, the branch owner—the County—had discretion on how Measure S funds would be used to improve its library branches.
Although there is coordination between the SCPL and the Member Agency in library building features, ultimately the Member Agency, as the building’s owner, dictates what will be built.
If a Member Agency runs short of cash for construction, the Member Agency is expected to make up the difference.
The SCPL is expected to come up with operating funds.
Given the County Redevelopment Agency’s expansion seven years earlier, the Master Plan called for relatively little work at the Live Oak Branch Library.
Annex: Concept & Vision
The SCPL’s branches vary greatly in age and size, however, the Master Plan stated the number of branches was sufficient. It “confirmed that the current network of libraries will be maintained without adding, consolidating, or eliminating facilities in any communities.”
One feature all 10 SCPL branches had in common when voters considered Measure S was the presence of SCPL library staff and books for checkout.
In the same year the County Redevelopment Agency relocated the Live Oak interim Library to its current location, the Redevelopment Agency completed a County Parks project, the Simpkins Family Swim Center & Live Oak Community Center less than a mile away.
The County affirmed the Live Oak Branch Library location with the 2006 expansion and renovation. These public investments, their distance and lack of synergy, will prove important to County use of Measure S funds for the Annex.
The earliest mention of a Live Oak Branch Library annex in a public memo we found is in a July 6, 2016 update to the Board of Supervisors on the Felton Branch Library—after the vote on Measure S.
The County did not share the Annex concept and vision until October 2017, over a year after voters approved Measure S.
County community outreach described it as “a new learning center–library annex.”
A County staff memo to the County Board of Supervisors outlines the synergy the Annex would create among Shoreline Middle School, the nearby Boys & Girls Club of Live Oak, and “the County facility (Simpkins Family Swim Center & Live Oak Community Center).” All three of these facilities are next to each other.
The staff memo described how library funds might be used to improve the County’s Park facility: Measure S funded facilities could include a flexible, centrally located space that could be used by both small groups and individuals for reading and conversation with access to a small collection of library materials and technology; a classroom program space for story time, meetings, trainings and classes; small group study rooms; access to a flexible outdoor space for gatherings, performances and other classes; places for regular visits of the bookmobile and bikemobile … It is also proposed that feasibility studies and planning for the library annex include other upgrades including the opportunity for an enterprise kitchen in the existing commercial kitchen, perhaps operated by the Boys & Girls Club, offering food at a small indoor and/or outdoor café; a child care center; a room for exercise equipment; covering the warm water pool; and covering the Boys & Girls Club basketball court. Staff proposes to develop funding strategies for these ideas as part of a feasibility study.
Except for the “small collection of library materials,” this concept underlies the Annex being constructed. The County’s Public Works website describes the vision for the Annex “to create a community gathering and learning hub.”
Public Works describes it as “flexible program space, a classroom, study rooms, public computers and laptop bar, and a new plaza integrated into Simpkins Swim and Community Center.”
The Annex project plans describe it as a library lobby, children’s area, library learning center, group study area, and an active learning room.
Even the SCPL Jan. 27, 2022, update calls the Annex “a new addition to the Simpkins Center providing a classroom and study rooms—a community learning center to complement existing uses.”
The Community Center’s total added area is about 2,000 square feet, which about the size of the Live Oak Branch Library’s remodeled children and teen area.
But, while the Live Oak Branch Library has library staff and books for checkout, the Annex will have Parks staff and computers.
This investigation explored how SCPL communicated its vision to Measure S voters, and how that vision was derailed by political influence.
The Grand Jury identified SCPL’s limitations in embracing an 11th library branch, as well as the Live Oak Branch Library and Community Center’s limitations in meeting the needs of the Live Oak community.
The result is the County’s investment of library funds in a Community Center that is, in essence, a building addition providing technology and educational resources—not library staff or books.
Did Political Influence Change the Priorities of the Master Plan?
With the Master Plan complete, the SCPL polled voters to determine the tax voters would tolerate to yield the most money to support the Plan.
The SCPL’s next focus was getting the measure approved. This required the influence of elected officials.
There are strict rules about using public resources (staff) and funds to prepare a measure for the ballot. Public agencies may use public funds to test whether the measure might pass, craft ballot language that meets State law requirements, and obtain legal advice. But the Courts draw the line at using public resources for a campaign.
Once the County Board of Supervisors approved Measure S for the June 2016 ballot, SCPL staff could not campaign for Measure S.
The SCPL needed elected officials to urge their constituents to vote “yes” on Measure S.
To secure support, the SCPL JPA Board leadership reached out to elected officials.
The JPA’s request became what we concluded were essentially negotiations for the future use of Measure S funds. Library staff was not involved in these discussions.
One outcome of the discussions was that the County Board of Supervisors set aside $5 million in Measure S funds for Live Oak.
This was not an expenditure identified in the Master Plan.
With Redevelopment’s 2006 investment in the Live Oak Branch Library, the Master Plan called for only $1 million of capital maintenance improvements for this branch.
On Dec. 15, 2015, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors approved the distribution of Measure S funds among the SCPL Member Agencies. The Board committed $5 million of the County’s share for “Live Oak.”
The staff memo recommending this Board action offered no explanation as to how the sum of $5 million was calculated, or how it would be spent in Live Oak. The Live Oak Branch Library was not called out as the target of the Board’s decision. The Board did not reference or take note of the SCPL Master Plan, which did not propose this level of expenditure on the Live Oak Branch Library.
This Board action posed more questions than it answered.
Master Plan As Measure S Guard Rail
If voters outside of Live Oak missed the County’s Dec. 15, 2015, Board of Supervisors meeting, they would not have known of this dedication of Measure S funds for Live Oak.
The County’s Live Oak commitment did not appear in the Measure S ballot materials.
Nor was the commitment referenced on the SCPL website, which notes the bond measure would address the “most urgent needs” of library branches and offers the Master Plan as the defining statement of those needs.
Should voters have reasonably expected Measure S funds might be used to expand a community center one mile from an existing library branch?
There were limitations in using the Master Plan as the Measure S spending plan.
The 2013 Master Plan’s cost estimates were out of date by June 2016 due to rising construction costs. The Master Plan was developed without the community outreach. But the Master Plan was SCPL’s vision to bring all library branches to a common service model.
And, the Master Plan was clear, stating SCPL’s intention to modernize and improve its existing 10 library branches.
People feel betrayed when they see their voter-approved tax dollars being spent on something they did not anticipate.
A prime example is the ongoing and robust discussion in the Sentinel’s Letters to the Editor regarding relocation of the Downtown Branch Library. While there are several aspects to that controversy—which are outside the scope of this report—all proposed alternatives for the downtown library would use Measure S funds on a structure to house library staff and books. Also, the library branch existed.
The Annex, on the other hand, will be a newly constructed space within an existing community center with no assigned library staff and no library books for checkout.
If voters understood the SCPL had no effective way to control its Member Agencies’ use of Measure S funds, would Measure S have passed?
Importance of Librarians
Not only is the SCPL a bystander without direct say in how Measure S funds are spent, the SCPL is expected to staff and maintain whatever the SCPL Member Agency builds with Measure S funds.
Because of the SCPL’s short supply of operating funds, the Annex will have computers and wireless internet, but no library staff or library books available for checkout.
The traditional idea of a quiet library with professionally trained staff and books for checkout is expanding to include outdoor meeting space and books available through a computer application.
However, the role of the librarian in facilitating its patrons’ learning is still needed.
Given the Annex’s proposed synergy with nearby Shoreline Middle School, the Grand Jury takes note of a downward trend in schools being able to afford library teachers.
Research shows school librarians positively impact student achievement at all grade levels, but they are not as readily available as they once were.
Instead of librarians, County Parks staff will be responsible for day-to-day operations of the Annex, including public use of the computer equipment.
Library staff will be onsite only when they have a program in the building, just as SCPL sometimes uses the London Nelson Community Center in downtown Santa Cruz.
SCPL will have to use its limited operating revenue for the Annex’s proportional share of the Community Center’s utilities and janitorial services. Should the SCPL no longer wish to use the Annex (or cannot afford to pay for upkeep), a current draft agreement between the SCPL and Santa Cruz County Parks provides that either party may terminate the agreement and Santa Cruz County Parks will retain the benefit of  Measure S improvements.
The Annex is still under construction, so SCPL is not yet incurring the Annex’s operating costs. The same goes for other Measure S projects under construction.
The SCPL JPA has not discussed or dealt with the increased operating costs from all of the Measure S library expansions.
This failure is concerning as the 10 original branches are expected to have library staff.
The SCPL Operating Budget for Fiscal Year 2022–2023 notes staff is just over 45 percent of the budget.
The JPA has not yet established overall branch staffing to meet the needs of the branches soon reopening.
These plans and impacts will fall outside the FY 23 budget process. Voters should stay tuned.
The Annex will likely improve the lives of Live Oak residents. The central location of the Community Center and adjacency to Shoreline Middle School offer a unique opportunity to address the after-school needs of middle-school students who have aged out of formal after-school care programs. The learning center can be used for adult education. The Annex will help bridge the gap for those who may not have internet access and computers at home.
But without librarians or library books, the Annex is a departure from the SCPL’s other 10 branches.
The grand jury is of the opinion that the County did not have the discretion to use Measure S funds for the improvement of a County Parks facility.
Why Not Improve the Live Oak Branch Library? The short answer is location, location, location.
The Live Oak Branch Library site (by Schwan Lake) is limited by natural features that restrict the ability to increase the building or the parking lot size, which are both needed to allow for larger programming events.
The most limiting factor was the library’s location relative to the primary intended Annex users: Students. While the library building may have scenic vistas, it is not close to the Community Center or the students who need continued learning opportunities after school.
The Live Oak Branch Library does have a separate area for children and teens that is almost the same size as the entire Annex (1,953 square feet) but Shoreline Middle School students would have to walk about a mile to get there.
It appears the County’s main objective was to create an after-school study area and/or evening adult education space, not a library facility consistent with the rest of the SCPL system.
Redevelopment Impact on County Parks
In government budgets, there is an important distinction between money for one-time uses, such as buying land or constructing a building (capital funds), and money on an ongoing basis for operations (staff, utilities, maintenance.).
The County’s Redevelopment Agency was a source of flexible capital funds that could be used for any public project within Live Oak. The Agency paid for an impressive array of good public projects that benefit the Live Oak community today. But, in 2012, California abolished redevelopment agencies.
With redevelopment’s demise, County Parks was left without capital funds to remodel the Community Center to address the neighborhood’s need for public computer and internet resources. The County used Measure S to fill the void.
The Board of Supervisors’ December 2015 Measure S commitment to Live Oak has since grown.
The Board delegated authority for the Director of Public Works to award the construction contract for the Annex based on these sources:
The total project cost is projected to be $6,552,940.
Annex Impact on Operating Budget
The SCPL prepared for Measure S by taking stock of its branches and developing a model to provide system-wide improvements to all patrons using all branches.
Despite SCPL’s intentions, political interests won out over the Master Plan without regard for the impact on SCPL’s operating budget.
The SCPL will soon be responsible for maintaining a new location, and replacing lost or damaged equipment in the Annex. This responsibility will be competing with the costs of staff and operation for the 10 branch libraries. As noted, SCPL’s operating budget challenges are yet to be resolved.
The Grand Jury acknowledges the Live Oak Community Center is ideally located to serve the Live Oak community. The resources the Annex will offer seniors, adults, children, and teens will fulfill the promise of the former Redevelopment Agency in creating the Live Oak Community Center by offering space and resources for after-school study and adult education.
That being said, the Annex has little in common with the SCPL’s 10 existing library branches.
The Annex is also likely to become a concern for Santa Cruz County Parks staff that will be responsible for keeping the learning spaces, internet, and computer resources in the Annex operational and available for the people who need them.
Similarly, SCPL now has a new fiscal responsibility to pay for an 11th “library” branch.
The Board of Supervisors’ use of Measure S funds for the Annex contradicts one of the conclusions of the Master Plan—that all patrons use all libraries—and focuses only on the neighborhood branch and voters.
Could this $5.75 million have been used elsewhere in the system for improvement of an already existing library branch?
Probably so, but we may never know.
The SCPL could have offered more transparency on its website and in its voting materials as to how the Measure S $67 million total was estimated and how it would be spent among the library branches.
The SCPL’s lack of transparency could mean that the next call for a special tax may be rejected for lack of trust.
This would be an unfortunate outcome given the unique and special role that libraries, parks, and community centers provide. These public facilities improve our quality of life, and if left to compete for general revenue contributions, they may lose again.
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