Most counties and cities in California have seen their budgets recover from depths of the Great Recession. That’s not the case in Kern County though, which relies heavily on taxes from oil. That tension has put a popular public asset in the middle of a years-long fight over its future. In the end, 2017 could be a year a big change for the Kern County’s public libraries.
The list of issues facing libraries in Kern County is lengthy.
They, like every other department in the county, are in the process of yet another round of budget cuts. Six months ago, a tax specifically to support them failed to reach the required two-thirds majority it needed. People are also asking whether county supervisors could revisit a previously shelved plan to privatize the system. And their current director, Nancy Kerr is leaving.
“Obviously, the lack of funding here is a factor. I am moving on to an area that supports their libraries better both financially and in circulation numbers and community support,” Kerr says.
When Kerr took the helm in 2014, oil was over $100 a barrel and the county budget was much healthier. In the meantime, prices have collapsed and with it county revenue, leading to big budget cuts across the board.
Kerr says they have cut as much as they think they can, but are still looking for more ways to save money while keeping the doors open. For example, moving two libraries that are currently renting space into areas already owned by the county.
And when it comes to returning to the conversation about handing control over to a private company?
“I really doubt it. Part of it is that our budget is at a point now that I don’t think they could come in a make a profit,” Kerr says.
Valley Public Radio reached out to Library Systems and Services, the company that previously expressed interest in taking over the libraries, but they did not respond to requests for comment. We also reached out to county supervisors, but again did not hear a reply about the potential for privatization.
“It’s not looking good for the libraries coming down the line here,” says Jacob Cairns, the head librarian at the Beale Memorial Library in downtown Bakersfield.
Beale is the flagship of the Kern County library system, but with the budget cuts and well-publicized battles over the future of the libraries, it has been hard to attract and keep employees.
“Definitely on people’s minds. Some people are already jumping ship. I am going to try to ride it out as best I can. I love the library. I believe in the library,” Cairns says.
Cairns says it’s hard to see where the additional cuts are going to come from, saying the library has already been cut, in his words, to the bone. Currently, some of the county’s 24 library branches only have one person working there and if they get sick the branch may not open.
The defeat of the tax saddened Miranda Lomeli-O'Reilly who organized its campaign.
She says she doesn’t see how the libraries can continue to offer the services they do currently.
“Our most vulnerable citizens in Kern County are going to suffer. There is going to be a reduction in probably libraries and days. So children, people without access to the internet at home. Those people are going to be the ones who suffer,” Lomeli-O’Reilly says.
The budget fights have gotten so bad that earlier this year the county district attorney Lisa Green suggested closing every branch in order to fund law enforcement.
“We have to be able to prosecute the criminals. And I will say it right now, if that means closing every library in this county to make sure that that is done so deputies can be on the street. So when people call, they want a deputy sheriff to come. And they are arrested, they want a prosecutor,” Green told the supervisors in August.
Green declined to comment on tape for this story, but says she is waiting to see what changes may come when the new County Administrative Officer takes over.
The county sheriff has also said that public safety is suffering under the cuts but is not as specific about which department should bear the brunt of reduced revenue.
So given all that, why would someone want to take over the struggling department?
Well, the interim director Andie Apple says she still believes in the future of the system.
“I thrive on challenges. I like to look at the big picture. I have been here long enough to know institutional knowledge and background. I know a lot of the key players around the county. I am not fearful of the transition,” Apple says.
However, Apple says she is already thinking about how to respond in the event that branches are closed. She thinks the future of the libraries will involve more digital material and more mobile or ‘pop up’ libraries to replaced closed brick and mortar buildings. She says she intends to apply for the position permanently when it becomes available.
Despite the rocky road ahead, outgoing director Nancy Kerr says she is hopeful for the future even though she herself is headed to greener pastures.
“The library has been here a long time and I think it is going continue to be here for a long time. It may be in a little different shape than it has been but that is the case with libraries all over the country,” Kerr says.
While the current plan is for 5% cuts for each of the next two fiscal years there might be one bit of positive news.
As the price of oil continues to climb, the county may find itself in a much better fiscal position to spare, not only the libraries, but other department in the county from the budget axe.