By Jack Humphreville.

One of the highlights of Los Angeles’ upcoming “Back to Basics” budget is the “restoring and reimagining” of the City’s libraries.  This includes expanded hours of operation for the Central Library, its eight regional libraries, and its 64 branches; increased staffing to better serve its 15 million visitors a year; the increased budget for books and other educational materials; and the establishment of two digital learning labs.

This progress was made possible by the increased funding authorized by Measure L, the Public Library Funding Act, which was approved by 63% of the voters in March of 2011.  Measure L was in response to the draconian cuts in the Library’s staffing (off 27%) and hours of operation caused by the City’s “full cost recovery” program that was instituted in April of 2010 to help balance the City’s out of control budget.

Under “full cost recovery,” the Library was slammed with almost $24 million in special chargebacks, representing 32% of its charter mandated appropriation of $76 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2010.  These surprising first time assessments were to reimburse the General Fund for a portion of the Library’s pension and medical expenses; to fund direct costs such as utilities, building maintenance, transportation, natural gas, police security, and custodial services; and to fund its portion of the Early Retirement Incentive Program that decimated its senior ranks and institutional memory.

Under Measure L, the Library’s charter mandated revenue was increased by 71% over four years, from 0.0175% of the assessed value of the City’s grand list to 0.03%.

However, over the same four year period, a “special charge” was phased in to cover previously unallocated overhead associated with pensions and benefits as well as direct costs that were absorbed by the General Fund or other City departments.

Now that the four year phase-in period for both revenues and expenses is complete, the Library’s net revenue (charter mandated appropriations of $139 million less special charges of $60 million) now exceeds levels enjoyed in fiscal year 2009-10 by $4 million, thus allowing the Library to restore some of its hours of operation and service levels.

Measure L was criticized as “ballot box budgeting.”  But Measure L was carefully crafted to be budget neutral byCouncilmember Bernard Parks after the City Council realized that the proposed $39 parcel tax designed to raise over $30 million for the Library was doomed to failure once voters realized that almost two-thirds of the new money would be going out the back door to help the City cover its budget deficit rather than being invested in Library services.

Measure L not only assures the Library’s funding (less than 3% of the General Fund budget), but protects the department and its almost 1,000 well educated employees from the backroom power politics where well-funded special interests wield disproportionate influence over the members of the City Council.

On a net basis, after taking into consideration the special charges being billed to the Library, the impact on the City’s budget is essentially a wash as the $64 million increase in revenues over the last five years is offset by special charges of almost $60 million.

The Library Department is now responsible for most of its expenses, including, but not limited to, pensions and benefits (equal 50% of salaries!), its water and power bills, and the maintenance of its facilities.  This creates an environment where the management is held accountable not only for the quality of its services, but their cost as well.

The Library’s successful transition is a strong message to Mayor Eric Garcetti and his budget mavens that they need to institute a more comprehensive system of accountability for all City civilian and sworn departments by making them responsible for all aspects of their budgets. This will lead to the more efficient delivery of services to the citizens of Los Angeles, a goal consistent with the Mayor’s programs of Back to Basics and Performance Budgeting.