For Hilmar residents and regular library patrons the thought of further library reductions is unacceptable.
Since last November the library has gone from being open 32 hours a week to 20 hours a week, and starting Monday the library will be open 10 hours a week.
The service reductions have come as a result of a crippling budget situation for the Merced County government.
According to Merced County Supervisor (District 4) Deidre Kelsey, the loss in property tax revenue over the past several years led to a board-mandated 20 percent reduction in county departmental budgets — including the 15 library locations in the county.
For County Librarian Jacqueline Meriam, the cuts she is being asked to make are forcing her to make tough decisions.
“I understand why the Hilmar community is devastated by this. We have reduced hours across the board at all our locations, we just all have to tighten our belts,” she said. “Originally, we looked at closing everything but the regional libraries (which Hilmar is not), but I basically stomped up and down and cried ‘no, no, no’ so we could keep all the libraries open by reducing hours.”
Marge Pack, a Hilmar Library patron and retired librarian, fails to understand why the reduction in services isn’t distributed based on a library’s circulation.
“There isn’t a lot to do in Hilmar, and for residents, in particular the young people, are dependent on the library,” she said.
Pack is concerned that a further reduction in hours could eventually lead to a complete closure of the library.
“Ten hours a week will kill this library. People will lose interest because if you limit the time people can access the library, then you limit who can use what services and eventually they will just go elsewhere or forget about the library,” she said.
Last year the Hilmar library checked out and checked in more than 6,000 books.
Easily the most popular event at the library is “story time.” Luisiana Drumonde, a grandmother of three, often brings her grandkids to story time but she says a library teaches lessons far beyond just a good story.
“If they keep cutting the hours, how will the kids learn the value of responsibility? When the kids check out and keep a book, then return it they are getting one of their first lessons in responsibility. It makes them feel proud,” she said.
Furthermore, Drumonde said the library serves as an avenue for family bonding.
“The library is part of summer, it’s part of being a family. My grandkids always know when it’s story time day because they come to grandma’s and go to the library. It would devastate them if there were no more story time,” she said.
In June of this year Hilmar’s story time, held each Thursday for one-hour, hosted 103 children.
Drumonde and Pack, along with 70-year-old patron Mary Fairbairn, are concerned about where their tax dollars are going and what they call “excuses for mismanagement” at the county level.
“I will be making some phone calls, people will be hearing from me,” said Fairbairn.
The upset great grandmother isn’t alone. So far dozens of people have pledged to visit the Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting scheduled for July 26, and just as many say they plan to call county officials to voice their opinion.
For patrons 20 hours a week could seem like a god-send, considering what could very well be in store for the future of the Hilmar Library.
What could be even more of a challenge is next year when the main Merced County library in downtown Merced will lose $900,000 in redevelopment agency funding due to the state budget.
“There will be further impacts to the library system driven by the state budget and the loss in property tax revenue. We’ve been using our reserve funds, but we are down to $20 million and we can’t use anymore,” said Kelsey. “We have to live within our means, Hilmar has been cut an additional 50 percent, but some libraries have been cut 75 percent.”
Kelsey said she will help as much as she can with discretionary funding that she is allotted, but the bulk of money to maintain even 20 hours a week must come from fundraising efforts and private or corporate donations.
According to Meriam, it would take $41,500 to keep the library open at 20 hours a week for the next year, $4,500 for the facility operation and $37,000 for librarian salary and benefits. Meriam said staffing is 90 percent of the county library system’s budget and librarians have not taken a pay cut, but have had their hours reduced. She said salary costs could be reduced by replacing full-time variable librarians with “extra-help” librarians and moving the variable-librarians to larger libraries.
For more information on Merced County Libraries, visit www.co.merced.ca.us and click on the green banner link for “county departments.”
To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.