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Officials plan Petaluma’s library of the future

The November approval of a countywide sales tax measure marked the beginning a new chapter for the Petaluma Regional Library, which is expected to see a slate of improvements in the coming months, including expanded hours, additional classes and digital resources as well as building upgrades funded by Measure Y.

To usher in the first of the major changes, library officials are hiring to fill as many as 30 positions across the various branches in anticipation of opening the doors of the county’s libraries on Mondays for the first time in six years, Sonoma County Library Director Brett Lear said. The Petaluma library is hiring part-time adult and children’s librarians to prepare for adding 12 hours each week, according to Joe Cochrane, the branch manager.

Hours were slashed in 2011 during the recession, leaving a gap in services, Lear said.

“It’s particularly tough for any community to be closed on Monday,” Lear said. “That’s one of the days that kids are going back to school and they have homework and it’s great for them to get to the library to get the books they need for classwork. Sundays and Mondays are usually the time when job postings hit – it allows people who need to access computers to look up and apply for jobs.”

The 11-member Sonoma County Library Commission may eventually be asked to consider opening branches on Sundays, he said.

Since Measure Y funds don’t start rolling in until July, the commission is being asked in February to pull $750,000 from its reserves to cover salary and benefit costs from April until June, with the option to pay back the money from Measure Y funds, Lear said.

Extended hours could be in place as soon as April 3, and current proposals ask for opening the Petaluma branch on Mondays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an additional hour Wednesdays evenings, Lear said.

“Really it’s just to thank the voters for their support with Measure Y and to really demonstrate that we’re starting to do things now in honor of their vote, otherwise taxpayers would have had to wait nine or 10 months to see any benefits of their vote,” Lear said.

In Petaluma, 69 percent of voters cast ballots in favor the measure, which increased sales taxes by an eighth of a cent across the county, funneling an estimated $10 to $12 million annually into the library’s $17 million budget.

Though the measure didn’t include a detailed expenditure plan for the 10-year life of the tax, Chief Financial Officer Ken Neiman said officials have parsed out a tentative annual breakdown: about $1.2 million to classes, materials and other resources; about $2.2 million to facilities upgrades and associated costs; an estimated $1.5 million for IT infrastructure and computer databases and about $5.5 million for salaries and benefits and other associated costs. The Measure Y funds will be added into the library’s budget, which is approved by the commission.

For decades, the main funding source has been property tax revenue, which was capped at 22.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value under Proposition 13.

Additional books, classes and programming will be added in Petaluma as soon as July, Lear said. Patrons can also expect to see computer labs and expanded access to technology in all branches soon after, he said.

For Cochrane, Measure Y funding will help reinforce the idea the library serves as a diverse community resource in the “age of digital literacy.”

“I would say right now at this very moment I’m most excited about being open on Mondays … but beyond that just being able to have spaces and places for people to gather in our library that make the engagement beyond the notion of the library as books,” he said.

Cochrane outlined dreams for adding a study room, a “maker space” for tinkering and creating and a dedicated teen space to the library’s infrastructure, as well as an expanded collection of books in Spanish and expanded space and event offerings for Latino families.

The commission in March will be asked to approve a facilities master plan with recommendations for renovations to libraries across the county during the next decade.

The plan places the Petaluma library at “high priority,” and the second branch in line for repairs, recommending a refresh to the interior of the 25,000-square-foot building constructed in 1974. The plan outlines upgrades to the building to bolster ADA compliance, meet building codes and to make the outdoor space usable for outdoor programming and events.

The estimated price tag for repairs to the Petaluma branch ranges from $1.6 million to $4.6 million, though the actual cost will depends on the scope, Lear said. According to the plan created by San Fransisco-based firm MK Think, the recommendations should be revisited when the library is selected for an upgrade.

The Petaluma project could be up for approval as part of the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, Lear said. It’s not clear when repairs might be undertaken, or how long the work might take.

“Petaluma is pretty similar to several other libraries, you can look at the browns and oranges and just see some color tones that maybe have lost their vogueness,” Lear said, adding that some of the buildings also have issues with building systems and infrastructure. “I think, too, that most of our buildings now kind of laid out as libraries have traditionally been laid out – like book warehouses ... libraries have become collaborative places where people come to work on projects, do homework and meet.”

Tim May, who represents Petaluma on the Sonoma County Library Commission, said he’s looking forward to expanding the library’s services, voicing his “immense thankfulness” to voters who approved the measure.

“I think it speaks to the value the voters see in the library and culture,” he said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)

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