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When the Alameda County Law Library cut its evening hours, Oakland attorney James Giller felt the pinch right away. He recently had to drive 20 miles to the John F. Kennedy University School of Law’s library in Pleasant Hill because the Alameda County library now closes at 6 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. It’s nearly impossible for a busy attorney to make it to the library under the new rules, the Mintz, Giller & Mintz partner said. And small shops don’t have the money to buy an extensive collection of legal tomes. “It’s a lot of stuff that the solo practitioners don’t have or can’t afford,” he said. Alameda County Law Library has been forced to make drastic cuts in its $1.5 million budget, said Cossette Sun, the library’s director. While she has managed to save $120,000 by cutting her book budget, freezing wages and furloughing employees during the winter holidays, the library remains $179,000 in the red. Now the county, which shares the main library’s Oak Street building, wants Sun to pay as much as $200,000 annually to cover rising facility costs. “It’s really heartbreaking,” said Sun, who has been the library director since 1978. “When I saw the budget this year, I could not believe there was such a big gap.” Across the state, beleaguered county law libraries are in crisis. A statewide task force is looking for ways to solve the problem, but help won’t come soon enough to save many libraries from the budget ax. From Alpine County to Los Angeles, law libraries are making deep cuts or closing their doors. That spells trouble for the solo practitioners, pro pers, students and residents who can’t afford to buy the expensive volumes or electronic research services that the libraries provide. “There are a lot of lawyers who use it as their primary research tool,” said Alameda County Bar Association President Spencer Strellis, who asked the Alameda County library board to reconsider the shorter hours in a Sept. 9 letter. Other Bay Area libraries are under pressure too, said Contra Costa County’s law library director, Alice McKenzie. While it hasn’t made drastic cuts, the library can’t afford to have a full-time librarian or open an east county branch. In San Francisco, the library saw filing fee revenue drop 12 percent despite a $3 increase in the fee in January. The library has had to cut its book budget and cut hours at one of its branches, said director Marcia Bell. For years, public law libraries have been under financial pressure. They are funded by civil filing fees, but the number of lawsuits has dropped over the years due to factors such as the growing use of arbitration. Consequently, despite fee hikes, libraries have seen their budgets nudged into the red. In the past, libraries fended off legislation that would make them pay rent for county buildings, which state law allows them to use for free. Now, the combination of costly library materials and shrinking funding �� and, in some counties, renewed pressure to pay for building expenses �� has intensified the crisis. In response, California lawmakers last year created a statewide task force that will issue recommendations to solve these problems in 2005, said Sun, who is on the panel. Meanwhile, San Diego’s law library has cut hours, slimmed the book budget and, like Alameda, will furlough workers during the Christmas holidays. Travel funds were also axed ���� the director now travels to Sacramento to testify about law library budget woes on his own dime. Further north, the Los Angeles County Law Library made similar cuts and closed its Beverly Hills branch, said director Richard Iamele. Seven small counties’ law libraries no longer provide basic services, says Sharon Borbon, the director of the Fresno County Public Law Library and spokeswoman for the Council of California County Law Librarians. “We have had some counties shut their doors completely,” Borbon said. Alameda County Law Library isn’t in danger of closing, but Sun is worried. Right now, the library gets $28 of the county’s $311.50 fee for unlimited jurisdiction cases. On Tuesday, she asked the Board of Supervisors to give her a $3 raise — the maximum she can seek — from each civil filing fee. The board agreed. The fee hike will bring an additional $60,000, but Sun won’t begin to see the money until January when the hike takes effect. The library pursued and won similar hikes in its share of the fees twice in the past five years. But after a brief pop in revenue from 2001-2003, the library this year faces its smallest funding in five years. Over the same period, law book prices increased by about 60 percent, librarians say. “We lost purchasing power,” Sun said. On top of that, the county is prodding the library to pay a greater share of the building expenses for the 12th Street facility that the two agencies share in Oakland. Under the Business & Professions Code, counties must pay for space and facilities needs for law libraries, Sun said. However, the library agreed to pay the county $114,000 annually for its share of the facility expenses as part of a joint venture. Earlier this year, Sun said, the county was asking the library to pay as much as $359,000 a year. While she acknowledged that the building costs have probably increased over the years, the library can’t afford to pay. If it did, the library would be forced to whittle even more money from its book budget, Sun said. The county has also asked the library to start paying $50,000 annually to rent the building that houses the Hayward branch. The county and the library are still negotiating about building fees, said Aki Nakao, the county General Services Agency director. “They should have been assessed at a higher rate years ago,” Nakao said, adding that the county is now asking for about $200,000. Like any business, the county is trying to recover costs wherever possible, he said. Libraries in San Diego and Los Angeles have also faced pressure to pay for county facilities, which state law has allowed them to use for free. In San Diego, the library staved off an effort to make the library pay for its own facilities. In Los Angeles, Iamele now pays phone costs at two of the nine libraries. It would be impossible for the financially lean libraries to pay rent or other facilities costs, library officials say. The key to helping the libraries won’t be higher fees but a better funding source solution. And there is talk of regional libraries instead of the county model, Borbon said. “If we are still funded by a mechanism that relies on civil litigation, we need to re-think that,” Borbon said.

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