Agreement advances on library revenue-sharing proposal | July 25, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - July 25, 2018

Agreement advances on library revenue-sharing proposal

by Dave Boyce

The Atherton City Council on July 18 unanimously decided to move forward an agreement to share some unspent property tax revenues from Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley with the San Mateo County public library community. Since 1999, these funds have been earmarked to benefit public libraries in these three communities only.

By its vote, the Atherton council joined its counterparts in Portola Valley — that council approved it unanimously on July 11 — Belmont, Brisbane, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Millbrae and San Carlos, all of which are members of San Mateo County Libraries JPA (joint powers authority.)

The agreement, some four years in the making, still needs the approval of all members before it can go into effect, said Anne-Marie Despain, the system's director of library services. The councils in Woodside, Pacifica and Half Moon Bay and the county Board of Supervisors have yet to vote on the matter.

The revenue-sharing aspect of the agreement would not go into effect until the end of the fiscal year in which the town of Atherton completes its new library, Atherton Councilman Rick DeGolia said. That milestone could occur in 2021, the agreement says.

The agreement would also lower to 6,500 (from 10,000) the minimum population requirement for a JPA-member community to be eligible for library system funding of 60 hours per week. It also establishes a nonprofit foundation for the benefit of the library system.

Since 1999 and the formation of the joint powers authority, unspent property tax revenues dedicated to the upkeep of public libraries in Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley have gone into trust funds reserved for the communities' exclusive use. (At the time of the formation of the authority, Portola Valley had no unspent revenues, Despain said.)

The three communities access the trust funds through annual funding requests to the JPA board. "The board has never said no to a request," Despain said. "They've all been valid. I think there's a good process in place."

Under the new agreement, half of each town's leftover property tax revenues earmarked for libraries would continue to go into their trust funds, but the other half would be available to the library system.

Were the revenue-sharing in effect today, the library system would be getting about $33,000 from Portola Valley, about $225,000 from Woodside and about $745,000 from Atherton, Despain said in a staff report.

Atherton should have about $16 million on hand when construction of the new library begins, DeGolia said. But when the library is built, all three towns will continue to collect more than they can spend for library purposes.

Roots of disparity

The property tax levy to support free public libraries in San Mateo County dates back to 1913, Despain said, before any of the three towns were incorporated. That the collected revenues can be used for library purposes only is a consequence of Proposition 13 in 1978, she noted.

In remarks before the Portola Valley council voted on the agreement, Councilwoman Maryann Derwin called it an issue of equity. "This is a public library system where we have a two-tier system," she said, "where three of the libraries out of 12 have so much money that they can't even spend it all, and so it accumulates in a large pile while other libraries like in East Palo Alto are trying to just get by."

In an email, DeGolia said the JPA "has been beneficial to the San Mateo (County) Library system. It is always a challenge to find a workable solution for diverse communities that have different and often conflicting strategic interests."

The agreement is the work of a subcommittee of the library system board, with Derwin as chair and with participation by DeGolia, county Supervisor Carole Groom, Woodside Town Manager Kevin Bryant and council members from Belmont, Foster City and Brisbane.


Lowering the population threshold makes Atherton eligible for system funding, which would be drawn from Atherton's unspent revenues.

"This was part of the negotiation," Derwin said in an email. "To get Atherton to agree to part with 50 percent of their post-expense donor funds, which amounts to a lot of money, we had to make concessions."

Neither Woodside nor Portola Valley meet the 6,500-resident threshold, meaning that those communities pay for hours above 40 per week from their own property tax revenues. But, Derwin noted, not only do Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley take in more than they can spend, the generosity of Friends of the Library groups reflects the wealth of the communities.

Redirecting all unspent revenues to the library system as a whole and giving everyone an equal seat at the table was a nonstarter, she said. "With this new agreement, we can at least narrow the gap and direct more tax dollars to be used for all the libraries in the JPA," she said. "This will not be a hardship for Portola Valley."

Among the 12 JPA members, only Brisbane's library asks the city to support extended hours of operation, Despain said. Libraries that support patrons from unincorporated areas also rely on earmarked revenues from the county, she said.


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