Photo by Ali Enright
Photo by Ali Enright

Santa Cruz’s public libraries need help. An upcoming local ballot initiative, Measure S, will grant $67 million via new property taxes for improvements and repairs, but only if it’s approved by two-thirds of voters in the upcoming June 7 countywide special election.

Measure S would exact a yearly tax of $49.50 per home and $86 per parcel of agricultural, commercial and recreational land for 30 years to fund building projects and maintenance for the county’s 10 library branches. The Capitola and Felton libraries will receive multi-million dollar replacements alongside renovations at all other branches except Watsonville, which operates independently from the county. The libraries would use over $16 million in addressing critical structural and safety issues.

The libraries’ operating costs already come from property and sales taxes, but the county hasn’t levied new taxes for improvements and renovations in over 30 years, said Janis O’Driscoll, interim director of Santa Cruz County Public Libraries. If the libraries don’t receive money for renovations, the branches will eventually be unable to provide quality service for community groups who rely on the libraries’ computers, meeting spaces and extracurricular activities.

The libraries would also upgrade internet speeds with the funding to better serve the hundreds of people who use the libraries’ computers daily.

“People have found they need us in a different way, and also we want a level playing field because not everybody has high-speed internet,” O’Driscoll said. “Some people don’t have any internet in their homes.”

The measure requires a 67 percent approval from county residents. A January poll found that only 35 percent of 400 countywide respondents believed the libraries were in “great need” of funding for renovations, according to Gene Bergman and Associates.

“We have lots of leaking roofs, we have outdated boilers,” O’Driscoll said. “What can you do when your roof is leaking after a while?”

Since the announcement of Measure S in February, it has attracted hundreds of endorsements from prominent citizens, businesses and organizations, including Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews.

“Libraries are foundational civic institutions,” Matthews said. “I’ve been on the library board for most of my time on the City Council, which is something like 15 years now.”

When asked about the required two-thirds vote, Mathews said, “It’s daunting, yet we’ve done it many, many times in this community. [Santa Cruz] is a progressive community. People value public services, and we’ve supported public services of all sorts in the past.”

The intimidating numbers aren’t curbing the Our Libraries Our Future campaign for Measure S. The campaign has recruited 22 students so far at UC Santa Cruz for tabling, distributing fliers and phone banking to rally support in the county.

Emmanuel Garcia, a recent UCSC graduate, said he’s campaigning for Measure S because libraries were important to him and other low-income high school students back home in San Diego.

“Libraries are close to my heart because they gave me access and resources for my education,” Garcia said. “It would have been much, much harder to graduate high school if I didn’t have the library.”

Libraries also provide essential training for basic job skills, Garcia said. “If you don’t know how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel, you can learn through programs available at your local library.”

As local institutions serving multiple facets of the community, Santa Cruz libraries offer author talks, storytime for children, literacy classes and meeting spaces.

“Some of these people have families and children,” O’Driscoll said, “and those children need to have the same opportunity to compete and be part of the world and learn what they need to learn to make a living and make their way.”

Youth turnout for 2016’s Democratic primaries is the highest since 1976 when Jimmy Carter ran. The county will likely see higher than usual participation on June 7 from students at UCSC and Cabrillo College, and proponents for Measure S hope student voters will give the measure the support it needs.

“Libraries are really spaces where we have equal opportunity — equal opportunity to access information, equal opportunity to use resources,” Garcia said. “They are democratic institutions at their very core, so I think what libraries stand for resonates with students.