Libraries & SF’s Out of Control City Spending

With some expenses, it’s easy to tell if you’re being ripped off- you just shop around. If one gas station is charging $20 for a gallon of gas, vs $5 elsewhere, it’s clearly offering a raw deal.

But what about city government? For example, how do you know if the San Francisco Public Library system’s $172M FY 20-21 budget is too high, or too low? If your tax dollars are being treated with respect, or if waste and maybe even corruption are likely at play? Is there a way to “comparison shop”?

Happily, San Francisco has an almost direct equivalent. San Jose, just 30 miles south, mirrors SF in all respects that might influence the cost of its libraries. Some examples:

(2021 figures)San FranciscoSan Jose
Population.9M1M
Average household Income$96,925$96,662
Median Home Sales Price$1,285,000$1,250,000

With labor, real estate, geography, and every other factor that might influence library system cost identical, you’d think system budgets would be about the same as well. But they’re shockingly different:

San Jose’s budget is only $49M, less than 1/3 of SF’s. And when you compare these numbers to other, more moderate cities, things only get worse.

Take Houston. With a population of 2.3M, its FY 2020 library system budget was $42M. Let’s compare the per-citizen library spending of each city:

Rich, liberal, high-tax San Jose, and moderate, lower tax Houston seem to present a reasonable range of library spending: about $20 to $50 per person, per year. SF’s $200 cost is an extreme outlier.

Moreover, libraries are in decline, with fewer and fewer people visiting each year. It should be obvious that the internet has replaced much of their two reasons to exist: information and entertainment. SF’s main branch has become more a homeless shelter than a functioning library in recent years, as evidenced by this video. Despite this, the SFPL system budget has exploded, from $62M in 2007 to more than triple that today.

Proponents of SFPL’s enormous budgets will respond with all the wonderful things the system does, from author events to workshops on writing college essays. But does your library system really need Drag Queen Story Hour? Or Lion Dances?

Your tax dollars at work.

Other cities seem to agree that such things are a waste of taxpayer funds. As far a corruption, I know of no cases where the SFPL has used their budgets illegally. But we’ve seen enough illegal activity in other city departments to give me a preference toward keeping spending in line with those of other cities.

I don’t have a grudge against libraries. They’re just a visible, easy to understand example of SF’s poor financial management. The extra $150/year you’re paying for unneeded library services is repeated over many departments, resulting in SF’s enormous $14B/year budget, the most per capita of any city in the world.

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