People have asked why the town is planning to spend $5 million on a new library at a time when it is cutting the size of its staff. The answer: a portion of our property taxes go directly into a library fund administered by the San Mateo County Library Joint Powers Board (JPB). Atherton's library is one of the 12 libraries administered by the JPB. Library funding from Atherton taxpayers is identified separately and used to pay for local library expenses.
Each year the Atherton account has been accumulating an additional surplus, which at the end of June amounted to $5.566 million. These funds can only be used for library-related use and cannot be transferred to the town's general fund. The library fund can only be used for construction and maintenance of the library.
The current library is housed in a converted house with about 4,790 square feet of space. It is in need of a seismic upgrade, which would cost around $400,000. The City Council appointed an Atherton Library Steering Committee (ALSC) to consider the alternative of building a new facility rather than trying to upgrade the present structure.
The library committee is considering a much larger structure of 11,000 to 13,000 square feet to be built on the present library site or in Holbrook-Palmer Park. At the previous two community outreach meetings, the committee estimates approximately 80 residents showed up to voice their ideas about the project.
The library committee is expected to present its site recommendations to the town's Park and Recreation Committee on Oct. 5, and on Oct. 18, the library committee plans to ask the council to approve the proposed site.
Some have questioned why the proposed library needs to be 2.3 to 2.5 times the size of the present library. The larger size is necessary because the JPB assigns the territory each library is intended to serve, and the territory assigned to the Atherton library includes other areas besides Atherton.
In assessing the needed size of the Atherton library, the 9,200 residents of West Menlo Park, Green Acres, Sequoia Tract and Menlo Oaks neighborhoods have been added to the 7,300 Atherton residents. The library taxes from these additional areas do not, however, wind up in the Atherton library account, and, unfortunately, no statistics are kept by the Atherton library that would indicate where current users reside.
Questions have been raised about the future function of a library in light of the information technology changes rapidly taking place. The advent of e-books and the ease of access to on-line library materials and documents will have a major influence on the role of a library.
New roles for the Atherton library are expected to include archiving the town's documents and artifacts now housed in the Heritage Room. The library committee also envisions the library becoming a "community center" with space for community meetings and activities.
One of the complications is the council does not know what exactly is in the future for a new town center. That future will be dependent on raising private funding to cover most of the cost. The town center planning is being done separately from the library project. On Oct. 12 the three finalists will present architectural design concepts, at the Pavilion, between 6 to 9 p.m.
Finally, a philosophical question has been raised about spending money on "bricks and mortar" or directing some of the library funds to help out local school libraries. Certainly, there is a great need for such help as schools are forced to cut back their own funding for libraries. The JBP has indicated assisting both public and private school libraries would be a valid use of taxpayer library funds.
Library decisions are about to be made. In terms of taxpayer dollars, this will be the largest civic project in the town's history. The size and location of the library will be inherited by future generations. We still have the opportunity to help shape what the library's future in Atherton.
Jerry Carlson is a member of the Atherton City Council.