For two months, a group of about 250 volunteers has been out in Kern County collecting signatures for the Library Tax Measure, also known as the "Library Initiative for Everyone."
This grassroots coalition of educators and supporters of the Kern County Libraries is advocating once again for a 1/8 cent sales tax that would double the libraries' funds — and even though it's too late to get it on this November's ballot, they're still collecting signatures.
In 2016, a similar tax initiative received a vote of 51.68 percent, falling short of the two-thirds vote requirement. After a California Supreme Court decision in August changed the rules so that tax increases proposed by citizens only need a simple majority to pass, the library supporters decided to try again.
Linda Fiddler, who teaches at Cal State Bakersfield, has been spearheading the initiative. Standing in front of the Beale Memorial Library daily collecting signatures, she said she was surprised by the foot traffic of children, parents and others coming in to utilize the library's programs and other resources.
“If I can come here every day and get 50 new registered voters to sign my petition, minimally, there is a need,” Fiddler said.
The volunteers originally hoped to get the measure on the November ballot. Although they have run out of time for this election, they have other options to try and pass the initiative down the road.
Auditor-Controller-County Clerk Mary Bedard said volunteers have 180 days from when the measure was filed in May to submit the signatures, giving them until late October to finish collecting signatures and complete the process by Nov. 5, too late for this election. After the initiative is reviewed by the Kern County Board of Supervisors and has met the required 13,269 signatures, the board can either enact the measure themselves, call a special election or place it on a future ballot.
“If I have to sit out here every day for the next five years and do whatever I need to do, we’re gonna do it," Fiddler said.
The revenue from the tax would go into a fund overseen by the library director and the Board of Supervisors, as well as an advisory committee, according to the text of the measure. The money would help increase WiFi access, upgrade technology in the libraries and expand programs like a job fair that was going on last week while Fiddler was collecting signatures.
Jasmin LoBasso, marketing and promotions associate of the Kern County Library, said the current budget for the libraries is about $7 million per year, which primarily goes toward staff costs. She said the library system has been focused on changing its image to show that there is more to it than just books.
“One of the things we’re pushing is expanding our programming, offering services to teens, kids and even adults, offering the library as a community space," said LoBasso, who added that more than 6,000 programs were offered among all the libraries last year.
She said the library system is actually growing each year, getting more book checkouts and people coming through the doors.
Ana Cornejo, a fifth-grade teacher at Berkshire Elementary who has been out two or three times a week collecting signatures, including at the parade downtown on July 4, said there is a misunderstanding in the community about libraries. She said coming from a low-income family and working with students who cannot afford books, she sees the need to fund libraries.
"I think it does definitely take an aspect of knowing that it may not directly affect you, but in the long run, you know, it's going to be such a big impact on our community," Cornejo said.
Jill Egland, a community activist and vice president of the League of Women Voters Kern County, was involved in the 2016 measure and this year's initiative. She said the funds would particularly help people in outlying areas of the county such as McFarland and Wofford Heights.
"It's difficult for people in Bakersfield to really grasp the role of the libraries," Egland said.
Egland also said that although there are other tax initiatives coming on the ballot this fall, this one would have been different in that it is community backed and has a direct channel for the funds.
"I really believe in local initiatives," Egland said. "I know that if I put my pennies together with you... I can direct that investment into specific things I know our community needs. It's too bad that taxation has this really bad rap."
Volunteers have so far collected around 14,000 signatures, more than the 13,269 necessary. However, Fiddler said they are aiming for 17,000, since many of the signatures are unusable because of errors such as an incorrect address.
"We call it a tiny tax that will do mighty things for Kern County," Fiddler said.