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As Libraries and Parks Close, Californians Rethink Prop. 13

HAS the tax revolt that began with California's Proposition 13 finally run its course? Faced with the prospect of closing their libraries and parks, residents in this rural county are beginning to wonder.

Enacted in 1978, Prop. 13 lowered property taxes for homeowners and corporations but resulted in drastic cutbacks of government services.

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``People thought it would be the answer to their prayers,'' says Twila Stout, president of Merced's Friends of the Library. ``But it broke all of the people's services - basic things like police, roads, schools, and libraries.''

California has faced a series of annual budget crises due to Prop. 13 and a recession-wracked economy. And last year the state government appropriated for itself much of the property taxes that used to go to county governments. (See chart, right.)

Officials in Merced County tried to make up the shortfall by raising the local sales tax by one-half percent. That November ballot referendum failed by 66 votes. So the Board of Supervisors voted to close the libraries and parks and recreation department, effective Dec. 31.

The popular outcry stunned even veteran politicians. Residents volunteered to restack library shelves. Waitresses have donated a percentage of their tips to raise the needed funds. At Hoover Junior High School, a group of 30 seventh-graders brainstorm about how they could raise money to keep the libraries open. Twelve-year-old Diana Balam suggests holding ``a spell-a-thon,'' in which adults pledge money for every word a student spells correctly.

Across town, 88-year-old grocery-store owner Genaro Ramirez dipped into his savings to donate $10,000. The libraries ``are very important,'' he says, especially ``for all these young boys going to school.''

Some cities voted to temporarily fund their local county libraries. Private and city contributions have come to about $221,000 so far, according to Ms. Stout. Such donations have kept 17 of 19 county libraries open.

``It's very difficult to build a budget on contributions,'' says Gloria Cortez Keene, a member of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. But she and other supervisors say they hope to keep the libraries open on a volunteer basis for the next six months and then place another sales-tax referendum on the June ballot.

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If passed, the measure would raise about $4.5 million: half to meet the library and park and recreation budgets; the other half, to help the general fund. That worries Stout and other community activists, who advocate a referendum that would designate funds specifically for libraries and parks, even though passage would require a two-thirds vote.

``I doubt if people will vote for it, if it's not designated,'' she says. ``If the state keeps taking away [property-tax revenues] and the county has to keep giving, there's no telling where the money would go.'' Californians may be ready to revolt against the broad cuts forced by Prop. 13, but they still don't trust politicians to spend the money wisely, Stout says.

``We need a government revamping,'' she says. Officials ``should find out what the people want.'' If the state can improve the economy, that would increase the tax base, she says. ``We need more people paying taxes, not people paying more taxes.''

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