As a city with almost 130,000 residents, Salinas is woefully underserved when it comes to libraries.

Between the main John Steinbeck Library, and its two smaller branches--El Gabilan on North Main Street and Cesar Chavez in East Salinas--the city is more than 100,000 books short of what it should have to serve a population of its size, according to newly appointed City Library Commissioner Patrice Parks-Kaminer.

"Ideally, there should be a branch within walking distance of anyone living within city limits," she says, particularly in a city like Salinas with no bookmobile.

"Twenty-five years ago, the library commission did a plan of where we should be by the year 2000," Parks-Kaminer says. "We''re still at the same level as when they came up with that plan."

The Salinas City Council is aware of the problem. Yet in January, the council voted 4-3 against a proposal to use $1.3 million towards purchasing the $2.4 million Service Merchandise building in the Harden Ranch Plaza in North Salinas, and turning it into a new city library.

Councilmember Jyl Lutes, a fifth-grade teacher elected to the council last November, was the plan''s strongest advocate. She points out that the El Gabilan branch library, which the council is considering expanding instead of buying a new building, is 3,000 square feet. The Service Merchandise building, on the other hand, offers 26,000 square feet.

"We could have created a state-of-the-art library, with a computer center and facilities similar to big libraries, like in San Jose," she argues.

Because the city has only allocated $1.3 million for library use from close to $8.5 million it has in its Crazy Horse landfill fund, Lutes suggests that the City Council sell the El Gabilan site--worth about $1 million--to fund the purchase of the entire Service Merchandise building. Meanwhile, as the new library was opening, part of the building could be used for a senior center; when it was fully open, the library would occupy part of the space, and the rest could be used for daycare or extended day programs for schoolchildren, with space left over for, say, a community center.

"Most of the city''s population growth is in North Salinas, with just this tiny [El Gabilan] library," she says, pointing out that her proposed site, in a shopping mall, would have plenty of parking. "Three thousand square feet for a library that serves this community is absurd. As a teacher, I''m frustrated. When I assign a science experiment, there''s not enough places for my fifth-graders to go."

Mayor Anna Caballero also voted for the Service Merchandise proposal. "We need a new library functioning as soon as possible, and $1.3 million isn''t enough to build a new facility," she says. The advantage of the Harden Ranch building, of course, is that it''s already constructed, and moving in would be relatively easy.

But Caballero admits she doesn''t know where the city would come up with another $1 million to purchase the building. Maybe some funding could be taken from other projects, she suggests, but nothing concrete has been proposed along those lines. Meanwhile, a city subcommittee is studying the Service Merchandise option, and the council might review the project at a later date.

Councilmember Juan Oliveras voted against the proposal in January, purely on financial grounds. "The Service Merchandise building is attractive, and there''s room for parking, but how much will we get for our dollar?" he wonders.

"I care a lot about libraries," he insists. "But we have to stay within our budget."

And perhaps a new library is not the city''s most pressing problem, Oliveras suggests. At a weekend retreat on Feb. 13 and 14, city councilmembers ranked city priorities, as they do every year. Public safety is #1, as usual, taking up 50 percent of the city''s annual budget, Oliveras points out. The rest of the city''s business must work within the remaining 50 percent.

"Some of us [on the council] feel there are other issues [besides libraries]," he says. "I think we should help the parks, so we put money towards that. And we decided to put carpets in the two branch libraries. Altogether, that took half a million dollars out of our budget."

This coming year, in addition, the city will spend $5 million of its Crazy Horse money on infrastructure improvements.

Rather than use the entire $1.3 million sum allotted for library use to purchase half a building, Oliveras favors expanding the El Gabilan branch first, and then going out to find funding for a new library.

"All of us like the Harden Ranch site," he says. "It''s just about money."

Maybe the Harden Ranch Plaza building is not the best option, says Parks-Kaminer. "On one hand, it would be a quick fix," she says. But the city needs 30,000 more square feet of library space just to meet its current needs. Sinking the city''s entire library budget into the Service Merchandise building would not adequately serve the population even five years down the road, she says.

"Expanding the El Gabilan library might be better in the long term," she admits. "Eventually we''ll be able to build a library in North Salinas."

Parks-Kaminer also is not entranced with the idea of putting a library in a shopping mall. That''s just inviting parents to drop off their kids while they shop, which would turn the library into a free daycare center rather than what it''s intended to be.

At any rate, if Salinas wants to continue to grow and attract families to its new neighborhoods, she says, the City Council better move fast on providing library resources for the 21st century.

"What makes a city livable? What makes it attractive to people?" she asks. "The time is now to look at the kinds of services we provide. When families move in, they want to see a city that supports the arts. A city with libraries." cw

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