The candlelight vigil in front of a Salinas library a few weeks ago wasn’t the solemn gathering most participants expected. The participants were there to show their dissatisfaction, and to condemn, by their presence, the city council’s decision to close all three of its libraries. What ensued may instead go down as a low point in the city’s current fiscal crisis.
The vigil spiraled out of control when a local teacher began to scoff at Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero’s stated reasons for being at the vigil. The mayor was there, she said, in a show of solidarity. The teacher couldn’t be convinced. The exchange became heated, with the teacher saying she didn’t believe Caballero’s intentions. Caballero fired right back. “I don’t care! I don’t care!” Caballero shouted at the teacher, a candle in one hand, the other one raised and stiff, jerking with her shouts.
It was a show of emotion, of anger, of pent-up frustration that had perhaps had no business at a vigil in a city already plagued by hostility and violence. Yet it was, perhaps, predictable. On March 12, the first of the city’s three libraries is slated to close to the public; the remaining two are scheduled to close in early April.
“The city council is closing them because they didn’t like the way we voted in November,” David Milligan of Salinas says. He’s referring to City Tax Measures A and B that the council pitched hard to residents as the only way to save the libraries from closure.
Throughout the run up to the election, civic leaders took turns warning voters that the defeat of Measure A (a half-cent sales tax) and Measure B (a utility tax on big users) would mean immediate cuts in city services. The rallying cry for the failed measures was “Save Our Libraries.”
The plan may have backfired because voters felt like they’d heard it all before. In 2003, voters were asked to pass a similar tax plan, Measure Q, to “save” Natividad Medical Center. The tax measure failed, but the hospital survived. Similarly, in March of 2004, voters shot down Measure P, a tax increase touted as the only way to save the city’s paramedics. The measure failed, but the paramedics are likewise still around.
To Salinas voters like Milligan, Measures A and B may have felt like a whole lot of the same.
Milligan is a USDA researcher and 26-year-resident of Salinas with four kids in the local public schools. He says he did not vote for Measures A and B, yet he has been vocal in many venues, opposing the library closures.
“I felt bullied at the time,” he says. “It was like, ‘If you don’t vote the way we want you to, something bad is going to happen.’ And this is it. I just couldn’t help but wonder, Why didn’t they see this coming years ago?”
But to the many Salinas residents like Milligan, it’s not just about libraries. It’s about other city services like police and recreation centers.
Beverley Meamber, President and CEO of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce, who also operates Leadership Salinas Valley, says it’s the cumulative effect that’s having the most impact.
“How can we bring in new business to generate more money for the city,” she says, “when what we have to offer is: Oh, by the way, we have safety issues, an understaffed police department, we are closing parks and recreation centers, and you’re going to pay a whole lot of money for a house if you want to live here, too.
“It’s just going to be extremely tough to attract new business until we can resolve not just our library issue but the many, many issues that are facing us.”
For starters, Meamber says strong leadership is needed to help pave the road to recovery.
“The city council has shown their leadership by making these extremely difficult decisions. This is their community too. And while they’re not exactly popular with their constituents right now, it’s extremely difficult for them.”
Meamber says the Chamber undertook a thorough review of the city’s books. “They are really not overspending. Revenue just is not coming in. Even sales tax is down by $1 million.”
Milligan says the answer must certainly be out there somewhere, and he’s not entirely opposed to a new tax initiative to bail the city out. He’s just tired of the fighting. “Don’t we already have enough of that? I’m hoping for a strong last-ditch effort.”
Milligan may not have to hope for too long.
On Monday, Mayor Caballero announced that she had pulled a discussion of library closure schedules from the city council’s Feb. 1 agenda. She is holding a press conference on Thursday to announce a new plan in the works, which Caballero has dubbed “Rally Salinas.” She did not return phone calls at press time, but it is likely a tax measure to fund police, recreation centers, libraries and other city services.
Tax plans and other service-saving ideas city leaders may have in the works will no doubt take time. In the interim, Salinas businesses and residents are taking a proactive stance in their own immediate future.
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Michele Lofte, Senior Program Director of the Salinas YMCA, says services normally only offered to members will soon be available to all Salinas kids. “We’ll be opening homework centers and computer labs,” she says, “just as soon as we finish construction on a new building. Lofte says as many as 50 kids will be able to get homework help and computer time for free.
“I’ve been to the library after school to see how many kids are there. It was 25 to 40. We’ll have more space available,” she says.
While Lofte is hopeful that the program can make use of unused library resources upon their closure, like encyclopedias reference materials and computers, the plan will go forward either way. “It would be nice to have that help, but we will do it anyway,” she says.
High school kids looking to earn community service hours will likely help staff the place. “We’ll look for kids with high GPAs in particular for homework help, but we’ll need lots of older kids for other things too,” Lofte says.
Salinas’ Sun Street Center and the Boys & Girls Clubs have similar plans in the works.
Meamber isn’t the least bit surprised by the moves. “Crisis can create community,” she says. “I’ve gotten calls from around the world, people offering all sorts of advice.”
Right down to car washes and bake sales. Unrealistic as it is, Meamber says, “It’s the right kind of sentiment. This is one of those times where we truly need to take care of ourselves, where we absolutely need to come together and be more than the world sees us as right now. We’re so much more than that.”
The round-trip migration mileage for the California Gray Whale. 20,000 grays pass the Monterey Peninsula annually. Sources: San Diego Unified School District’s Triton Project, Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers