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As California lawmakers look for ways to climb out from under a $20 billion budget deficit, more than 400 miles from the capital, Charles Dyer sits and sweats among the stacks in the San Diego County law library. “I’m very nervous,” said Dyer, the county’s law library director. Two weeks ago, Dyer found himself at the center of a controversial plan to save money by eliminating the requirement that counties provide funding for law libraries. A bill before the state’s Assembly Local Government Committee this week would force libraries to pick up the tab for responsibilities that have been handled by county governments for the past 111 years. If the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis, it could raise law library costs by as much as 20 percent — a steep increase for libraries that have already witnessed a decade-long decline in funding derived from civil court filing fees. County officials argue the bill is an attempt to get more financial flexibility, giving them the option — instead of the requirement — of funding the libraries. But law librarians say the legislation will leave them in budget limbo: Counties will no longer be required to provide facilities, and the state will not pick up the slack. Put simply, the legislation would force libraries to foot the bill for such things as phones, lights and janitorial services. And the libraries would also likely be asked to pay rent for use of county-owned facilities. The libraries fund most of their operations — items such as staff salaries and book acquisitions — through fees collected on civil filings. Income is also supplemented through private donations, photocopier fees and fines for overdue books. In San Diego, where the bill got its start, Dyer says he could be forced to close two of his three branches if the bill passes. Law libraries in smaller counties may have to shut down for good. “People are barely making it now,” said Annette Heath, Kern County law librarian and president of the Council of California County Law Librarians. “There’s talk about law libraries closing their doors.” In Marin County, Library Director Hal Aigner said that without county funding, overhead alone would eat up 80 percent of his current budget of $240,000 and cut hours of operation by half. “We don’t have any cushion” to protect against that kind of financial blow, he said. For the counties though, having to bail out the state from the budget mess is a very real problem. In many, like San Diego, officials are poring over their budgets with an eye toward dumping any spending that isn’t deemed essential. “San Diego is extremely concerned about the impact of the budget crisis,” said James Gross, the Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist who’s working on behalf of San Diego County to get the bill passed. Gross, a partner with San Francisco-based Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, said San Diego approved a civil filing fee increase late last year to help cover library costs. But the county still got a bill for $300,000 for law library overhead to be paid from the general fund. “We would prefer that the law not absolutely force us to pay for [the law library],” he said. He added that he’s willing to work with the law libraries in an effort to hammer out a compromise. Gross also said counties will still have the option of funding their law libraries — although law librarians who’ve read the bill don’t see it that way. Heath said she isn’t so sure a deal can be made, because law libraries across the state have already been tightening their belts for years. Civil filing fees have been on the decline in many jurisdictions while acquisition costs and inflation have taken a bite from the bottom line. In all, California’s law librarians say in the past decade they’ve lost 40 percent of their purchasing power and can ill afford to lose any more at a time when the number of pro per litigants is on the rise. In Kern County, Heath said her 24,000-volume library is already dependent on Los Angeles County for many of the materials it needs, just as many smaller counties are dependent on their larger neighbors. Aigner, in Marin, said he’s puzzled about why the bill wasn’t written to deal solely with the problems in San Diego. “Why did it springboard to the rest of us?” he asked. Gross said he wanted other counties to have the option. “I’m not going to preclude other counties from participating,” he said. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Mark Wyland, R-Del Mar, would not comment on the issue. His chief of staff deferred questions on the legislation to the lobbyists working on behalf of the bill. Dyer also said he thinks San Diego may be using the law libraries as a bargaining chip to scare away lawmakers from going after the county for more money. “I think we’re a tool,” he said. Gross, however, said the county isn’t playing around: “It is a real issue and real dollars.” Law library funding is not included in the statutory definition related to trial court funding, and William Vickrey, the administrative director of the courts, said the responsibility for funding the libraries won’t change hands even with the new legislation. “It’s still with local government,” Vickrey said. Dyer said if the counties won’t support the libraries, he’s not really sure who will. “We have no other means to have our quarters paid for,” he said. Attempts to secure other sources of funding have not gone well for law librarians in recent years. In 1999, a bill was introduced by Quentin Kopp, the former state senator who is now a San Mateo County, Calif., Superior Court judge, that would have used a portion of criminal fines to fund county law libraries. That bill died, and Heath said there isn’t much chance of revisiting it because there are already too many hands in that cookie jar. More than a year ago, when the state was bragging about a $12 billion budget surplus, lawmakers encouraged the law library council to seek appropriations from the general fund. That was four months before the energy crisis hit and the surplus dried up. Now all Dyer can do is write letters to legislators and lobby hard. “When funding is really tight, the daggers come out,” he said.

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