The fate of McFarland’s community library has become a hot topic of conversation in the small, agricultural town of over 14,000 just off Highway 99 in northern Kern County.

City leaders have rallied around a proposal to acquire the Clara M. Jackson Branch and convert it into a revamped headquarters for its police Department. The City Council, the local district superintendent and McFarland’s Recreation and Park District director recently penned letters to the county.

“With even a cursory review of the police department’s facility, it becomes glaringly obvious that the Department’s lack of space hinders them from efficiently and effectively carrying out their law enforcement duties,” wrote Aaron Resendez, superintendent of the McFarland Unified School District.

The City Council cited “minimal objection” from the public in its letter, but since word spread about the proposal, it has faced stronger opposition, including an online petition that’s amassed more than 1,500 signatures. Some of the biggest proponents of keeping the library where it is are young patrons themselves.

“Our memories are here,” said Jazmine Ciciliano, 12. “We grew up in this place.”

“We want it to stay a library forever,” said Yazmine Olivera, 11.

“I get it, we need more safety, but this library is basically safety to us,” said Nicole Franco, 10. “It just feels like home.”

When school lets out, students walk to the library and many spend their afternoons there until the library closes at 6 p.m. They worry about what will happen after school if the library disappears.

“It will ruin friendships,” said Ruben Abundis, 11.

“What am I supposed to do, jump on my bed?” asked Natalie Lara, 9.

Money is the key factor in how many hours a library location is open, and Kern County has the worst-funded county library system in California.

Kern County is about the size of New Jersey but with more people than San Francisco. It also has more than twice as many children, according to census figures. In rural areas like McFarland, the rates of children are higher: 34.6% of residents are under 18.

Within its 8,131 square miles, Kern County has 22 libraries with an operating budget of $9 million this year. By contrast, San Francisco has 28 locations within its 47 square miles with a budget of $171 million.

Currently, every branch in San Francisco is open five to seven days a week, but in Kern County, most branches are open two or three days a week. The central Bakersfield library is the only branch open five days a week.

The discrepancy in funding between library systems is a consequence of the fact that California’s 1,130 public libraries are funded almost entirely locally. Last year, local governments provided 94% of California public libraries’ $1.84 billion. Federal and state contributions typically come in the form of grants for targeted programs.

On a Friday afternoon, the McFarland library is bustling. Branch supervisor Frank Cervantes shows patrons how to make jester hats. Children wander the stacks. Young patrons pepper the reference desk with questions. Two boys get help to find a copy of “Sideways Stories from Wayside School.” Toddlers play in a kitchen set. The computers are full. A young girl receives tutoring at a back table. As the arts and crafts program winds down, Cervantes announces that it’s storytime, and patrons gather to listen.

“I’m getting mixed feelings from everybody,” said Kenny Williams, who serves as the city’s police chief as well as its city manager. “It’s something close to people’s heart.”

But Williams said that the state of the Police Department’s current facilities at City Hall need to be modernized for a growing city, he said.

Williams rattles off a list of problems: the officer workspace is cramped, there’s no meeting space, there’s one locker room for both sexes, four sergeants share one office, paper-thin walls require the chief to use a sound machine to preserve confidentiality, parking for both staff and cars seized as evidence is inadequate, and property is increasingly stored in trailers.

“It’s a terrible way to operate,” he said.

Williams said the city has enough money to acquire and complete the modifications on an existing building but not to build a headquarters from scratch. McFarland’s most recent budget indicates it has $2 million set aside from a bond measure.

Williams was sworn in as police chief last year, and he later began serving as city manager as well. He said the city council has charged him with bringing stability and accountability to the city. McFarland has been wracked with a steady stream of scandal and financial struggle.

In 2009, the city re-established its Police Department, but low salaries and lax screening turned the department into a haven for officers and even chiefs with their own serious misconduct records, according to a report from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. In 2011, residents marched on City Hall to complain about a towing contract that incentivized the city and police to stop residents for minor infractions. A suit settled in 2017 claimed that city leaders quashed a search warrant on behalf of a city councilman’s son.

In 2019, then-City Manager John Wooner went missing for months before his body was found in a Dodge Durango at the bottom of the Kern River. An investigation suggested that before his disappearance, Wooner was distraught over a $180,000 shortfall in the city budget. In 2020, a former police chief pleaded no contest to charges involving padding the paychecks of police officers performing renovation work on his home. A police investigation found that Wooner knew about the misappropriation.

Locals haven’t forgotten this history, and there’s skepticism about new leadership. The petition to save the library, started by Elias Ahumada, states, “Rewarding a police department, with a long history of corruption, with the city’s only public library is disgraceful and negligent.”

Ahumada grew up in Wasco and Delano, communities on either side of McFarland. They are home to the Wasco State Prison, North Kern State Prison and Kern Valley State Prison. In 2020, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility opened in McFarland — the deal with the private contractors brings revenue into the city.

“We have a lot of money that we pour into prisons. We have prisons and police departments,” he said. “What we lack is educational and community resources.”

Williams said the council has instructed him to consider alternatives. All the initial suggestions assumed the library would move. Williams pointed to the schools, which have their own libraries. He said there might be some room in the building’s current meeting room for the library. Council members floated the idea of using a bookmobile or seeking private funds to build another library. A community member suggested setting up a computer lab for adults. But at a City Council meeting last week, Williams said he is looking into other options, “not just an elimination of that library.”

Phil Corr, president of Friends of the McFarland Library, believes these vague promises to seek alternatives are inadequate.

“I really think the library is being viewed as an afterthought,” he said.

Schools won’t allow just any adult to come onto campus to visit the library, Corr said. School libraries typically aren’t open for students late after school, during breaks and in the summer. And Natalie, 9, has one big complaint about her school library: she’s only allowed to check out two books at a time.

Kern County Library spokesperson Jasmin LoBasso said the idea of libraries as a mere book depository is a nostalgic one. Libraries are also a place to find multiple perspectives and verify facts in an era of information overload. Patrons come into libraries with basic questions or big ones, like how to find a new job, she said.

“It’s important that we have a library there,” LoBasso said. “At this point in time, we don’t have plans to depart.”

But one of the main arguments for acquiring the library is that the building is hardly used. The McFarland branch is currently only open Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s only used twice a week, and we would use it 24/7,” Williams said.

Some young patrons have their own solution to that.

“Open it every day,” Natalie said.

The pandemic threw a wrench into operating hours for many libraries. But two or three days have been standard in rural areas like McFarland for over a decade, according to LoBasso, except for a few years when there was extra funding to open them an extra day.

When Shafter, a small rural town about 20 miles southwest of McFarland, launched a program called the Education Partnership in 2010, the city paid to extend public library hours an extra day each week as it rolled out tutoring and college prep programs.

David Franz, the director of Education Partnership, said the city has been able to dedicate 5% of its city budget to the program this year because Shafter is in a better financial position than most small cities in the valley. It has not had to make a hard decision between public safety or education.

But Franz also discovered an unfortunate truth in his work with Shafter.

“Our libraries are horrifically underfunded,” said Franz.

In Kern County, local government contributed $6.17 per person for library services for the 2020-21 year, according to a survey of California public libraries. That put it just behind Imperial, Del Norte, Madera and Yuba counties, which all received less than $10 per person, according to the same survey. The library systems of Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alpine counties, on the other hand, received over $100 per person.

Many counties and municipalities have special funding mechanisms for community libraries. In 1994, San Francisco voted in favor of a property tax to fund its libraries. In 1998, Fresno County voted in favor of a one-eighth cent sales tax, which has helped to ensure libraries have $33 million to operate this year. That doesn’t include $25.2 million in capital funding for new libraries in Clovis and Reedley.

The Kern County Library has no dedicated fund through property or sales taxes and is almost entirely reliant on the county’s general fund.

“That’s one of the biggest differences between Kern County and other library systems,” said LoBasso.

Libraries must jockey for priority against other county departments. In 2016, then-Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green argued against across-the-board cuts at a Board of Supervisors meeting. She said public safety funding for deputies and prosecutors should be spared even “if that means closing every library in this county.”

Kern County had the opportunity to change this in 2016. A ballot measure would have raised funds for the library with a one-eighth cent sales tax measure, modeled on Fresno’s. It was launched after a failed effort by the Board of Supervisors to privatize the library system. But the measure faced opposition from local taxpayer groups, Republicans and Kern County Supervisor David Couch, whose district now includes McFarland. It failed to meet the necessary two-thirds threshold with 51.68% of the vote.

Kern County’s budget, and therefore its library, was uncertain in 2020-21. Residents in Shafter received word that their library would not be on the list of branches to reopen after the pandemic, and they worried it could be shuttered entirely. That spurred a “Save the Shafter Library” movement which resulted in the city’s library seceding from the county library system entirely.

In January, the Shafter Library and Learning Center reopened as an independent library thanks to the city and Bakersfield College, which now provide staffing. It is now open five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. — more than any other library in Kern County.

Franz said libraries are good investments for communities. The number of books children have access to at home is correlated with educational achievement, income and likelihood of participating in crime. But there are intangible benefits for the community that can’t be measured, and the city has tried to support that, too, with a community mural. He said there’s been a real hunger for a community library in Shafter.

“There’s a community spirit that grows up around the library,” Franz said. “There’s a joy around this public space that is fun and welcoming to families.”

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