October 30, 2014

New Santa Clara Library Branch, Long Stymied by Funding Dispute, Sees Happy Ending

 

Northside exterior july 2013 New Santa Clara Library Branch, Long Stymied by Funding Dispute, Sees Happy EndingMembers of the Santa Clara, CA, library community remain in a celebratory mood this week after finally getting the green light to resume work on the Northside Branch Library. The nearly finished building previously sat untouched for eight months while millions of dollars needed to complete the work remained frozen by a bureaucratic snarl, threatening to permanently close the Northside Library before it even opened.

“We’ll have the doors open no later than sometime this summer,” Santa Clara City Manager Julio Fuentes told Library Journal last week, a few days after he announced an agreement by the city not to touch those contested redevelopment funds, instead making $5 million available from city coffers to finish the branch.

The City Council, at its March 25 meeting, approved the plan, much to the relief of residents and library officials eager to see the branch, which has been in the planning stages since 2008, get back on track. “Soak it in,” Santa Clara Mayor Jamie L. Matthews told the audience after a unanimous council vote. “It only took six years to get there.”

“We are ecstatic,” said Tracy Wingrove, interim executive director for the Santa Clara City Library Foundation and Friends (SCCLFF), a nonprofit group that spearheaded efforts to build the Northside branch. “The community is so excited about the decision – just ready to get things going again.”

According to the SCCLFF website, the 15,000-square-foot, one-story library is “99.9 percent” complete. A 50-space parking lot is ready and the property has even been landscaped. The sleek building is LEED certified as a green facility. But the interior is empty. “We need books,” Wingrove said. “We need shelves. We need computers. We need furniture. We need people to staff it.”

That’s where the $5 million, shifted from Santa Clara’s land sales reserve fund, comes in. Fuentes called it “more than enough money” to finish off the project, bringing the final price tag to $16 million. With the project back on track, the SCCLFF will reconnect with vendors and contractors to stock the interior with everything necessary to make a library.

Left in limbo

Santa Clara, a city of about 119,000 in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, is located about 45 miles south of San Francisco and has emerged as a vibrant, growing part of the Bay Area. Santa Clara got itself on the map in one big way: brand new Levi’s Stadium, also funded partly by redevelopment money, will be the new home of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers starting next season.

Rivermark, a sprawling planned community built over 152 acres on Santa Clara’s north side, was another driver of the city’s growth. Part of the selling point for residents was a neighborhood library, and Rivermark developers donated three acres to the city for that purpose. (Once completed, the Northside Branch Library will also serve patrons in parts of San Jose and Sunnyvale, which border Santa Clara.) The Rivermark developers even built a parking lot for the branch in 2004, long before any blueprints were finished. “People assumed the library would be there,” Wingrove said.

But funding obstacles kept the project on hold for years, particularly after the 2008 recession took its toll on California’s economy. Redevelopment money, it seemed, was the best solution to get construction of the branch on track. But timing became a problem.

By 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown was fighting to bring down the state’s massive debt. He dissolved the state’s local redevelopment agencies, known as RDAs, amid criticism they lacked proper oversight. (Santa Clara was hardly the only community to feel the pinch from this decision; more than 400 RDAs had been in place around the state.)

RDAs gave state municipalities the power to raise tax money for specific public improvements. In January 2012, Santa Clara turned over $19.2 million in redevelopment funds to the SCCLFF to build a library. Ground was broken in July.

The problem was, the state had given every city until Feb. 1, 2012, to give back all unused money. California’s state controller’s office ordered the $19.2 million returned and a county oversight board was formed to monitor the RDA’s dissolution. Last August, Santa Clara County later obtained a temporary restraining order to stop work on the library, which by then was standing was practically ready to be occupied.

Once the RDA logjam was in place, and in the courts, Santa Clara officials knew it could be years before the remaining $6.5 million would be freed up for use, if it ever would. Meanwhile, the Northside branch would remain unfinished and unused, in effect a monument to political red tape.

“We were going to be the loser, and it just wasn’t right,” said Kathy Watanabe, a long-time SCCLFF member actively involved for years in the Northside branch project.

“It is a huge waste and the community was furious about it,” added Wingrove. “I’ve heard people say, ‘This is what we’re paying our taxes for?’”

Working together to Find a solution

Quietly, officials began to lobby behind the scenes. State Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, of California’s 25th district, played a key role in creating a dialogue between city officials, the state Department of Finance and the controller’s office, officials told LJ. Fuentes worked diligently to negotiate a solution.

The final agreement called for the SCCLFF to relinquish control of its remaining $6.5 million in escrowed RDA funds. Santa Clara sweetened the deal with an additional $700,000 from the city’s land sale reserve. It’s now up to the state to determine how and when that $7.2 million is returned to taxpayers.

“It’s all positive,” Wieckowski told LJ. “This is a good-faith resolution. … It’s hard to find, even in this era, a politician that doesn’t like to open a library in his district.”

In a statement, Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager said, “It is unfortunate that the Northside Library got caught up in the redevelopment dissolution process. I am pleased that all the parties involved have come together to find a solution. The north side of Santa Clara deserves its library. Now, they will get it.”

“The library has had nine lives,” Watanabe told LJ. “I’m the eternal optimist. My motto is, never say never. I was not going to give up. I’m so glad that we did not let the dream die. I think that’s why Julio fought so hard and Bob fought so hard. They knew if they didn’t do it now, it could sit there for another two years.”

A community celebration staged by the SCCLFF is tentatively scheduled for April 6, said Watanabe, who joked that the by-now ubiquitous orange “Save Our Northside Library” t-shirts worn at previous rallies may be ceremonially burned.

“Or put them in a time capsule,” Wingrove added.

Keeping it going

The city is preparing, not only to fund the one-time expense of getting the library doors opened, but to keep them open. Santa Clara currently runs two city-owned libraries with an operating budget of $7 million, city spokesperson Dan Beerman told LJ. When the Northside branch opens its doors later in 2014, that expense will naturally increase. (Santa Clara is currently in the process of recruiting a new city librarian. Interim city librarian Maria Daane declined to be interviewed for the story, referring LJ to city sources; assistant city manager Alan Kurotori, who is helping to oversee the library in the meantime, had not yet responded to a request for comment as of press time.)

“We estimate that in its first year, due to its anticipated popularity in the community, it will cost an additional $1 million to operate [the Northside] branch,” Beerman said. The facility, he added, will be staffed by 6.9 FTEs, including four full-time staff positions and seven to 10 part-timers.

There is no separate library tax rate for Santa Clara voters, and the library budget comes primarily from the city’s general fund, Beerman said, along with some state money and a few small outside grants. State aid has dropped precipitously over the last few years, he told LJ. In 2009-10, California contributed $306,000 towards Santa Clara libraries; last year, in contrast, that number was only $39,000.

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