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Los Altos and Los Altos Hills Look at Pulling Out of County Library System

North County Library Authority may not be able to subsidize looming $80 county non-resident fee.

The North County Library Authority (NCLA) voted Monday to ask the city of Los Altos and the town of Los Altos Hills to support the agency's proposed study of the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the county library system.

Stung by the April 28 vote of the county library board to charge non-residents of its district $80 per library card, supporters of the Los Altos Library have been concerned about several issues, from library access for students and volunteers, to retaliatory action by other libraries against Los Altos and Los Altos Hills residents.

Of the non-resident users about 9,300 live in Mountain View and check out about 300,000 items a year from the Los Altos Library, according to the Mountain View Public Library's Director Rosanne Macek. 

The county library district says that 43 percent of the circulation of comes from non-residents of the district. In Los Altos, Community Librarian Jane Cronkhite said non-resident circulation is even higher—47 percent on average, "primaily due to Palo Alto and Mountain View residents."

Macek told Cronkhite they just track the Santa Clara County Library card holders. And even that is small "It's a teeny-tiny percentage," Cronkhite said. "For us it’s about 20 percent of our circulation."

Members of the NCLA board said they think it's worth exploring going at it alone if it would give them the flexibility to operate a public library open to everyone, regardless of residence.

The NCLA, an agency created to enhance and support the Los Altos Library through the collection of a parcel tax levied on Los Altos and Los Altos Hills property owners, voted 4-1 to ask the two cities for support in looking more closely at the Los Altos Library seceding from the award-winning county district.

Los Altos mayor pro tem Val Carpenter cast the vote against the move, arguing that Milpitas spent $90,000 and a year studying the same question for that city several years ago and concluded it was more beneficial to stay in the district, which is operated by the county, but governed by the Joint Powers Authority (JPA), a large board made up of all nine member cities and two county supervisors.

But Los Altos Mayor Ron Packard, another one of five-member NCLA board, said Los Altos' case was different. For one, Los Altos contributes more money than it gets back under the complex county formula. Milpitas gets back more than it contributes.

"Milpitas is a beneficiary, we are a benefactor," Packard said bluntly. 

Sounding like someone who had given secession some thought, Packard said the actual act of leaving the library district was very simple. "You just pass a resolution."

But the real question was of finances. A study would have to drill deep into the nitty gritty, he said. "Do you forfeit all your equity in a JPA, or do you get your equity?" 

The go-ahead could be coming shortly. Mordo has already placed an item on the Los Altos Hills Town Council agenda for Thursday's meeting, and the Los Altos City Council could get the question as early as the June 28 meeting. With that plan in mind, NCLA board agreed to meet the following day on June 29.

The NCLA also voted unanimously to ask the two municipalities to send a letter to the library board to urge it to create an exemption for students, up to college age, to the $80 fee.

"I’ll be frank," Packard said. "I think the library board would be poorly advised if it didn’t pass that."

The action was taken after the NCLA received a legal opinion Monday morning  that subsidizing non-resident students was very likely outside its charter.

The board concluded it should shift its focus to using $10,000 of its funds to subsidize non-resident volunteers only. Subsidizing volunteers probably falls into its charter because volunteers' work directly benefits and enhances the library operation, board president Jean Mordo said.

The question of volunteer subsidies may have more than one solution. Carpenter said she asked the county library staff to come up with ideas. Also, members of the Los Altos Library Endowment (LALE), Friends of the Los Altos Library and the Los Altos Library Commission also attended the meeting. Bob Simon, president of LALE, said its board was meeting Tuesday morning and was prepared to consider helping volunteers.

The Friends of the library has identified at least 30 non-residents who volunteer heavily. Carpenter and NCLA chair Jean Mordo formed an ad-hoc committee to work with the organiztions to come up with a fair and simple criteria by which such subsidies could be effected.

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