Under community pressure, county blocks McFarland’s plan to convert library into police station

Credit: Emma Gallegos / EdSource

Rafael Serna likes to come to the library with his children. He helps three of his children at the craft table, while his daughter receives tutoring at a back table in the library.

Hearing the protests of his younger readers, Kern County blocked McFarland town leaders’ plan convert his community library into a police station.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors passed a budget last week that not only provides the small town library will remain openbut it ist its service will be extended from of them at five days a week.

Plans to move McFarland’s library have met with backlash in the farming town of 14,000, including 3,000 signatures in an online petition. Earlier this year, the city council, the superintendent of McFarland Unified and the city’s director of parks and recreation all sent letters to the county, which owns the library, asking that the library be turned over to the city. But Iubers, especially the younger ones, have demanded that the library stay in place and be open every day as a fun and safe place to meet after school and during the summers.

Friends of the McFarland Library leader Phil Corr said he was especially thrilled for these young patrons.

“It will give the children who need it most five days instead of two days,” he said.

Corr said expanding his service gives McFarland residents more days to look for jobs, work on homework or projects or just escape the heat — a crucial point during a week of soaring temperatures.

“It will mean so many things that cannot be measured,” Corr said.

The Clara M. Jackson Library branch will officially open five days a week beginning September 12.

“The staff is really excited and they have a lot of programs planned,” Sullivan said.

Amber Clarksean, the branch’s new supervisor, is furiously planning activities for the coming months: book clubs, Dungeons and Dragons club for high schoolers, anime club, Lego challenges, family reading time, and weekly craft days . Clarksean is also planning a big Halloween party.

“It makes it easier because we don’t have to cram everyone into two days,” she said.

The Kern County Library is the least funded county library system in California. Its libraries have about $7 per capita, well below the state average of $46. This results in libraries with very limited hours. The McFarland branch will become the beneficiary of a county decision to increase staffing throughout the Kern County Library system with one-time federal Covid funds.

But Kern County Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop warns that libraries and anything county-funded are at risk of stagnation and further cuts. The Kern County Board of Supervisors is asking voters for approval of a 1 percentage point sales tax increase to stabilize county funding.

McFarland Police Chief and City Manager Kenny Williams had mixed feelings about the new plans. For one, the McFarland Police Department is cramped and in dire need of a new headquarters, he said. Taking over the current library building seemed like the best option because the city cannot afford to build a new headquarters from scratch.

But he said he respected the county’s decision, who owns the building. He’s also glad to see the library will be open more often — part of the call from city leaders to take over the building was that it was underutilized.

“It’s also a victory,” he said. “Not everything is negative.”

Kern County has been working to bring its library staff back to pre-pandemic levels, Alsop said. A community, tired of cuts and threats of closure, decided to split from the county library system and create the Shafter Town Library and Learning Center. That freed up funds for the nearby McFarland Library, Alsop said.

The Kern County Library budget did not increase, but it transferred more of its funds to staff. Last year the library used federal Covid funds to purchase new technology, but this year it created new full-time and part-time positions.

The expansion of hours at McFarland was made possible by this change. It also means that two of the system’s busiest branches — Beale Memorial Library and Southwest Library, both in Bakersfield — will also see an expansion of their hours, Sullivan said.

But the Kern County Library is still a long way from full-time service. The busiest libraries outside of Bakersfield – Ridgecrest and Tehachapi – are open four days a week. The other branches are open one to three days a week. None are open after 6 p.m. or on weekends.

Alsop said it would take an additional $5 million to open the remaining branches five days a week. The library’s budget this year is just under $9 million.

“I want my libraries to be open across the county on evenings and weekends,” Sullivan said. “But we live within our means.”

Sullivan acknowledged his department isn’t alone in facing austerity in the county.

Kern County’s budget has stagnated for seven years as the issues it faces, such as as homelessness and the highest murder rate in the state, are only increasing, Alsop said. At the same time, the county anticipates a loss of tax revenue as the state phases out fossil fuels with the aim of ending oil extraction by 2045, impacting oil and gas companies which account for a third of land assessments.

About $2.5 million in federal Covid funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and the CARES Act, spanning three years, has allowed the county to expand its library staff. The county was also able to invest nearly $1 million in new library technology through these one-time federal funds.

This represents an unprecedented investment, Sullivan said. Libraries are full of decade-old computers, and many of them are “salvaged” from other county departments, including prisons.

“We never had a fleet of new technologies,” Sullivan said.

But those federal funds will run out. In November, unincorporated residents of Kern County will be asked to pay an additional 1 percentage point sales tax to help the county weather a financial crisis that shows no signs of abating. Many towns in Kern, including Bakersfield, already have sales taxes. Unincorporated residents who live outside cities and depend on the county for services have been hardest hit by the county’s fiscal woes. But countywide services funded by the county, including the library, would benefit from the sales tax increase, Alsop said.

At a June oversight board meeting, Supervisor Zack Scrivner said that without the tax passing, he foresees a future where other departments will be shut down to keep public safety departments afloat.

“I don’t think this is the kind of county we want to live in, where all we do is public safety. We are no longer able to do quality of life,” Scrivener said. “And that’s what’s on the horizon.”

A simple majority of voters in the county would need to approve the measure for it to pass, but it faces significant hurdles in the low-tax county amid rising inflation. A similar measure failed in 2018 when it garnered just 35.32% of the vote.

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