Credit: Emma Gallegos / EdSource

Ruben Abundis and Nicole Franco make jester hats at the McFarland Library.

Representatives from the town of McFarland are lobbying the Kern County Board of Supervisors to reconsider the town’s plan to turn the community library into a police headquarters.

A town presentation on Tuesday sparked the council’s first public discussion of the fate of McFarland’s library. When the proposal to turn the library into a police station was made public earlier this year, it faced outcry from many in the small, predominantly Latino town in the San Joaquin Valley. Younger library users were particularly exasperated at the thought of losing their homes in a city with little to do and few resources for young people.

The town of McFarland’s submission comes weeks after the council passed a budget that allowed the small town library to expand service hours from two days a week to five. Leaders from four city agencies first wrote letters to the county in January backing the proposal to convert the library into a police station.

Kenny Williams, McFarland’s police chief and city manager, told the council that the police department urgently needs space and modernization, but building a new headquarters is too expensive for the city. city ​​that struggled with financial insolvency. He said the process of finding grants and other funding would take too long.

“We need it now, we don’t need it in five years,” Williams said.

He said that taking over the library is the only possible option he sees.

“There is no explanation anyone can give me why providing library service is more important than providing basic public safety service to the community,” he said.

County board members have pledged to partner with the city in its quest for a new police headquarters. County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said he agrees the McFarland Police Department needs a new headquarters, but he wouldn’t recommend “cannibalizing” the library.

“I think this should be the very last option and only done in extraordinary circumstances,” he said.

Alsop said he would help the city seek low-cost public funding, grants and statutory appropriations for a new headquarters. He suggested that the police department set up mobile units on the vacant lot next to the current headquarters to meet the department’s most urgent need for space.

Supervisor David Couch, whose district includes McFarland, posed several pointed and far-reaching questions to Kern County administrators. He asked about the “objective criteria” that led county administrators to decide to extend McFarland Library hours. He asked if extending the library’s hours was a ploy that would block the city’s proposal to use it as police headquarters.

Couch pressed Kern County Library Director Andie Sullivan on the role of the contemporary public library. He asked Williams to share his experience of the library as a noisy place that functioned as a daycare center for McFarland students after school.

“Someone used the word ‘daycare,’ I would use the term ‘active learning,'” Sullivan said.

She said libraries are no longer institutions where librarians silence customers. Sullivan said the noise is a sign that young customers are learning to work together and collaborate — a key skill set for the future workforce.

“That brings me to a discussion we had before, and we disagree on that,” Couch said. “There are too many basic library services. In my opinion, there are too many of them.

He reminded everyone that county department heads, such as Sullivan, are reviewed annually, beginning in November.

Friends of the McFarland Library leader Phil Corr said he found Couch’s mention of Sullivan’s annual review “embarrassing” and “insulting”. Sullivan said he heard many people talk about Couch’s reference to his annual performance review.

“A lot of people have reached out to me,” Sullivan said.

Michael Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern County Taxpayers Association, spoke out against McFarland’s efforts to turn the library into police headquarters. He said the city should look for ways to expand and improve library services to help build its workforce. He noted that Kern County has the least well-funded library system in the state.

Supervisor Leticia Perez called the public library system “fundamental building block” which plays a vital role in a county where literacy rates are low and disaffection of young people is high. She noted that Bakersfield ranks at the bottom of the national scale on measures of literacy. Not being able to read has ramifications for residents’ livelihoods and public safety, but she said council has failed to address literacy for the serious issue it is.

“We don’t like to talk about it, because it’s embarrassing,” she said.

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