Advocates for the Merced County Library system are raising their voices due to concerns of budget cuts — and even the idea of closing branch libraries.
Five speakers showed up for the public comment portion of the most recent Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 22 with some surprising apprehension, even though defense of the library during the county’s budget season has been a regular occurrence over the years.
“Trusted messengers and community allies have brought to our attention that some in Merced County leadership are proposing to solve a county budget challenge by closing the Merced County Library,” said Susan Walsh, the president of this region’s League of Women Voters. “We ask you not to countenance such discussion in county offices, and certainly not to close or otherwise disadvantage the Merced County Library system in support of another county department based on its request.”
Walsh continued, “Closing the only public library serving the 286,000 residents of Merced County will be bad for residents, bad for government services, and bad for the economy. If this is allowed to happen, it will be, like the story of the City of McFarland proposing to turn its library into a police station, a national news story that will make Merced County look like a terrible place to raise a family or start a business. It will also make Merced County the only county in California without a public library.”
To be clear, the Times is unaware of any recent county leadership discussion related to the County Library and budget cuts, and/or any possible facility closures. Nor have any library backers confirmed to the Times that they know of any official discussions related to the issue. However, several interested community members, as well as couple who spoke at the Board meeting last week, suggested their fears for the library have something to do with a Sheriff’s Department request for more public safety funding support. A few have told the Times they are concerned with Sheriff Vern Warnke’s criticisms of funding for other county departments, including the library, at recent public gatherings.
During a recent interview with the Times, Sheriff Warnke did speak out about funding priorities in county government, and the need to ensure public safety is a the top of the budget list. He did mention library funding in his criticisms, but it was among other county departments he pointed out, as well as some recent high-level promotions and salary increases for county executives.
One source has informed the Times that Warnke’s request to increase public safety funding in the county budget will be on an upcoming Board of Supervisors agenda in September.
Donald Barclay, who wrote an Op-Ed about the Merced County Library in this week’s edition of the Times, said he feels local supporters don’t really have a beef with the sheriff or the idea that his public safety department should be adequately funded. What library advocates want, Barclay said, is for county leaders to look at all of their departments and come up with a solid plan to meet needs.
Another library supporter, Necola Adams, told the Times: “This really is about the supervisors.”
One thing is for sure: A Merced County decision to briefly shut down the library system down in 1993 is still fresh in the minds of longtime local residents.
“So many county residents remember all too well the closure of our library in 1993,” Kenra Bragonier told county leaders during the meeting last week. “And many feel we did not speak out soon or loudly enough about how we felt about our library.”
Bragonier, a member of the Friends of the Merced County Library, said she has received “texts, emails, and phone calls from many concerned people.”
“They are communicating because they are hearing rumors allegedly being floated by an elected official about the possible defunding or closure of our library,” she said. “Now I am aware that this is not something that has come before you to act upon. But I am sure you are aware of the undercurrents that are floating around about this. Is it possible as the saying goes, that ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire?’”
Another speaker, Sandra Hay, advised the Board: “We need to not pit different agencies against one another, but find a way to support all of our agencies in an equitable manner.”
Susan Walsh of the League of Women Voters also said: “We’re puzzled by this choice of departments to target in part because the Merced County Library is already so poorly funded. … The Merced County Library is in the bottom five of public library funding per resident of all public libraries in California.”
And one of the final public comments during the Aug. 22 board meeting came from Sheila Sillers, a local teacher for 31 years.
“Libraries are a freedom and a privilege that has always been part of America,” she said proudly.
The next regular meeting of the Merced County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 10 a.m., on the third floor of the County Administration Building, 2222 M Street in Merced.