A turf battle at Morro Bay library

The situation is somewhat similar to that of a neighbor who borrows a lawn mower, and when the owner wants it back six months later, the borrower says, “No can do — I’ve found too many good uses for it.”

That’s the way the Friends of the Morro Bay Library see the issue of who should oversee future use of the library’s John Kim Community Room — the city for a variety of public and private meetings, or the county for an expansion of library services?

In 1922, Morro Bay’s first library was a one-bookcase affair that shared space in the town’s post office.

Over the next 40 years, it found more temporary homes than the proverbial redheaded stepchild. It alit in a dry goods store, theater/art gallery, hotel, court building and former pool hall before Don and Jane Bailey and Librarian Dorothy Woods formed the Friends in 1974.

Through fundraising and the free services of local builder Kim, the Friends built the library on a city-provided half-acre at Harbor and Shasta by 1984.

In the next couple of years, the Friends relinquished control of the library through a series of leases and subleases between the city and county.

A 25-year lease between the city and county is coming up for renewal this July, and therein lies a bone of contention: control of the 1,500-square-foot John Kim Community Room.

“Twenty-five years ago the library did not need the full space, but it was always intended for the library when the need occurred — and that need materialized almost 10 years ago,” Friends President Karen Robert said. “The city was informed of that need then.”

The need is certainly there. Consider: In fiscal year 2000-01, 189,563 items were checked out; by 2008-09, that number had risen 24 percent to 234,367 items.

An average of 550 people used the library each day in November. And out of a total Morro Bay population of 10,333, there are 8,363 registered library patrons.

“The county — who provides and pays for library services (to the tune of $600,000 a year) — has continued to advocate for complete use during (the last 10 years),” adds Robert.

The City Council might make a decision at a closed session Tuesday on who will oversee use of the room — the city for a variety of meetings, or the county for expanded library services.

“The burning question,” asks Robert, “is: What may happen if the lease expires, as scheduled, on July 8, 2010, without the library being permitted to expand into the community room?”

Mayor Janice Peters sees the issue in a different light.

In a prepared response that she sends to those curious about her stance, Peters says, in part: “Grace Melton, who was active in the planning and construction of the library, told me the community room was just that, a gift for the community, and it is used that way constantly by over 600 people in various groups on a monthly basis, and by over 1,000 people annually for special meetings and events.

“Contrary to some comments made,” says Peters, “there are no other spaces like this, with parking, Internet, screen and AV capabilities, especially not at the low rates the city charges residents and nonprofit organizations. And those low rates produce some needed city revenue, as we don’t charge the library rent.

“The suggested use is for a children’s area, but who will staff it? The library already has cut back hours and staff due to limited funding. If we allow the library to take over the Community Room it will be literally un-used and unusable on many evenings and weekends when it is most needed as a meeting room.

“There was a wonderful plan to enclose the patio for library use, and the Friends raised quite a bit of funding, but the county did not proceed with it.”

When asked about the patio plan, county Library Director Bryan Reynolds explains: “I’m part of the reason (the patio expansion) didn’t go forward. I urged them to wait on the option, to wait until we saw how the whole building was going to morph, especially in light of the lease coming up.

“The library services should move into all or part of the community room. We wanted to see the whole picture before they went forward. People can meet anywhere,” added Reynolds, “but a library is a library.”

Peters notes, “In the future, when our new fire station is completed, we may be able to use the current facility for community events. At that time, we could certainly reconsider the library expansion goal.”

“For the city to not honor the original intent of the building,” Robert adds, “would be an obvious disregard to the founders, the donors, past city leaders, the community and the current Friends of the Library who believed that the city would safeguard their interests.”