Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.
By Lisa Halverstadt.

It’s the mandate that wasn’t.

More than a decade ago, city leaders pledged to funnel at least 6 percent of the day-to-day budget toward library needs by 2005.

That never happened.

The City Council has waived the rule year after year, each time citing other obligations. Only once, the year after the ordinance was approved, did the city keep its legislative commitment to libraries. (At the time, that meant 4.5 percent of the city’s operating budget should go to libraries.)

All this prompted the city’s independent budget analyst to pose a bold question in a recent report: “What happened to the library appropriation ordinance?”

The answer is pretty clear. There was only so much cash to go around.

The ordinance was approved in November 2000, a year before the Sept. 11 attacks pummeled financial markets and the city’s pension system lost money for the first time years. Before long, the city made national headlines for its pension missteps. Related burdens and a worldwide recession complicated matters further.

Many branch library hours were slashed by nearly a third from 2002 to 2012, and sometimes more, as the city sought deep budget cuts. A 2012 Voice of San Diego review found the average branch library was open 53 hours a week in 2002 but fewer than 37 hours a week by early 2012.

From 2009 to 2012, the city spent about 3 percent of its budget on library needs. That percentage inched up slightly upward during the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, though the allocation remains under 4 percent.

That’s far below the 6 percent city management was ordered to propose in the 2000 ordinance, a reality that disappoints the former councilwoman who championed the library ordinance.

Judy McCarty, who represented eastern San Diego neighborhoods from 1985 to 2000, urged fellow Council members to approve the ordinance at her last City Council meeting.

She and other library supporters had long complained of a lack of resources and even sufficient housekeeping at the city’s libraries. The Nov. 27, 2000, City Council meeting was McCarty’s last shot to formalize a funding mechanism for them.

Months earlier, the activist arm of the Friends of the San Diego Public Library had gathered about 53,000 signatures supporting a ballot initiative they hoped would eventually force the city to spend 6 percent of its budget on libraries. They fell short of what was necessary to get the measure on the ballot, and the City Council opted against doing so.

Instead, Council members asked city staffers s to return with a proposed ordinance that would include a set figure for the library budget.

McCarty recalls resistant City Council members and staffers at the November 2000 City Council meeting.

“It passed on my last day in office and yes, I was pounding the table,” McCarty said. “I just could not believe that we would get resistance to this. Libraries serve everyone’s communities.”

She and other supporters compromised to allow it to go forward.

City administrators worried about setting an amount in stone and being unable to change it in the face of a crisis. At their urging, McCarty said, she agreed to a version of the ordinance that would allow the requirement to be waived if city officials found their ability to maintain essential city services “necessary for preserving the health, safety and welfare of the citizens” compromised by the measure.

The City Council has relied on this exemption for more than a decade, including this year, when they attempted to add library hours lost during trying financial times. (The latter plans were scuttled by an unexpected pension board vote that left the city without cash it had expected.)

McCarty wants the City Council to finally set aside the cash the city once promised for libraries.

“I understand that times have been tough and there hasn’t been money to do a lot of important things but that’s in the past now,” she said. “Put money in libraries.”

Former Councilman Jim Madaffer, who served as McCarty’s chief of staff at the time, agreed.

“The waiver wasn’t put in place for budgetary convenience,” he said. “The waiver was put in place for legitimate reasons. Right now that the city seems to be out of the woods and on good financial footing. It would seem that the Council really doesn’t have a good reason to waive it anymore.”

But most city officials, including one who is vying to become mayor, seem to see the 6 percent figure as more of goal than a mandate.

Take interim mayor Todd Gloria, who will oversee the start of the budget process this year. He doesn’t seem too concerned with falling short of the mandate – but he doesn’t think it should be axed, either.

“It’s sort of like the angel on your shoulder whispering in your ear, serving as a regular reminder about the importance of investing in our libraries,” Gloria said. “While we might not meet the mandate, we’re always striving to spend as much on libraries as possible and repealing the ordinance would send the wrong message.”

Mayoral candidate and Councilman Kevin Faulconer views the ordinance as a longer-term target.

“The ordinance represents a worthy goal, and we can make progress toward it with the leadership of a mayor who will continue reforming government so we have the money to start spending on programs that improve our neighborhoods,” he said.

Fellow mayoral contender and Councilman David Alvarez and Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin prefer another approach.

Alvarez has consistently pushed for increases in library hours but said the library ordinance was the wrong way to handle such funding.

“When the Council passes mandated spending ordinances, such as the library ordinance, we are not able to have an honest conversation with residents about budget priorities, which change over the course of time,” he said.

Tevlin holds a similar view.

She said setting exact percentages for any sort of city spending, even as well-intentioned as the library ordinance, takes away flexibility that city leaders and residents deserve in the budget process.

“You’re putting community expectations out there that probably won’t be met,” Tevlin said.