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While the city council approved on Nov. 16 to have an outside firm conduct a needs assessment for a new technology, education and library center (TEL Center), county supervisors, who also approved the move on Nov. 17 in partnership with the city, expressed several concerns. They posed questions about how funds would be raised, potential partners in the project, and if it is even warranted when other infrastructure projects, such as roads, need to be addressed.

According to county records, the proposed needs assessment for the TEL Center originated during a meeting between Mayor Ignacio Velazquez, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz, and the Inter-Governmental Committee.  Mayor Velazquez said he was hesitant to advocate that Hollister put money forward unless there was an understanding of current and future plans for library services.

They recognized that a strategic plan already exists for the San Benito County Free Library, but a facility master plan does not exist. It was determined that a needs assessment would help all parties identify needs, potential resources, and how all agencies could work together on the project that would serve a multitude of needs, including the core mission to raise academic achievement.

“Some of the key players at the Inter-Governmental Committee who were willing to participate stepped up to the plate last night (at city council meeting),” De La Cruz said. “They voted 5-0 that they want to work with the county and the educational community.”

The first step in moving forward, according to Nora Conte, county librarian, is for the county and city staffs to design a request for proposal (RFP) for a third-party needs assessment that would result in a document that the mayor could take back to the council to show shared costs and goals.

Conte cited the Lincoln Public Library in Twelve Bridges, Calif., as an example of how the TEL Center project could ultimately look. She described how 25 acres was parceled for the high school, with the library adjacent to it; and another parcel was available for the community college.

“Their joint-use agreement identifies who takes care of what; it identifies a technical advisory committee that makes sure the interests of all parties are met,” she said. “There are a lot of details to be worked out, but this is the first step.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said that even though he, too, believes the idea of a TEL Center is exciting, he countered that in being a rural representative he is more concerned about roads and public safety.

“We’re coming out of this recession, our budget is a little healthier, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We have a road crisis and if it rains it’s going to be a complete catastrophe. I see this as costing money and right now we have a history of schools closing their libraries, which I think is a responsibility for them to provide. At Gavilan College they won’t commit to any more than a couple of rooms, as far as a college here.”

The city, Botelho said, has historically contributed 2 percent toward the $750,000 county budget for the library.

“I have a couple other higher priorities that we have to address, in the near-term,” he said. “Or, we can go out and have a grandiose plan. I would like to see the City of Hollister invest more into our library, say to the tune of $250,000 to buy some computers and expand some programs. We haven’t even talked about impact fees for the library, so we can commit more money to it.”

Botelho questioned what would happen to studies that have already been conducted, asking if they’ll be thrown away and start all over. He confessed that he doesn’t have all the answers, but said from his perspective there are more pressing issues concerning streets and staffing levels.

Supervisor Margie Barrios agreed with Botelho’s contention that the city has not supported the library as it should have. She said the county has been committed to the library all along, and did not take away funds even during the recession.

“We knew that it was a priority and that we were going to stick to it and do our job to provide that service—the city, not so much,” Barrios said. “But they’re at a crossroads now, and Supervisor De La Cruz said it very well, that he was not going to bring it back here until they made a commitment that they would partner with us.”

She said it is expected that Gavilan College and all of the school districts would be partners in a library/tech center.

“People are finally realizing that they are going to have to be partners if they want to get things done,” Barrios said. “This (authorizing the needs assessment) is a huge step, but it’s only the beginning. We’re not committing any dollars other than for the RFP to get the ball rolling.”

The project could take several years, she noted, but the needs assessment could open up opportunities for grants and matching funds.

“We have to start somewhere because it’s our responsibility, but we’re not going to lose sight of the importance of our roads,” Barrios said.

Supervisor Robert Rivas added that he supports a needs assessment that will determine the gap between the current state of the library and where everyone wants to be in the future.

“I don’t think the needs assessment is for us,” he said. “We know the needs of our library. It’s in a dilapidated building; the services are significantly outdated; and the technology is almost non-existent. What I’m looking for in moving forward is establishing partnerships. The last thing I want to do is to do this needs assessment and then shelve it because we don’t have the money. That is likely. If that’s the case, I have a document to throw in the faces of other community organizations that says we did this together and we need to do it for our community.”

Rivas said the plan of action should not be exclusive to the county, but should be a community plan of action that includes the county, the city, the college and school district.

“This library isn’t for our kids. It’s for our community,” he said. “I think of all the volunteers and the staff and the librarian doing everything they can with the resources that they have, but we need to do more.”

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked if anyone knew how much the needs assessment would cost and was told that would be determined by those who respond to the RFP.

“We don’t know if this needs assessment is going to cost $10,000 or $1 million,” Muenzer said. “It still bothers me how the school districts came to us and said we had to keep our library open because they were closing theirs. We struggle with keeping the library open at the cost of public safety.”

He said he took “political hits” for supporting the library and he thanked the city for “stepping up to the plate,” but he still would like to see the educational community join in to assist with the cost of the needs assessment.

Barrios said that request is within the plan and that the superintendent of schools is going to all the schools in the county to gain their support.

De La Cruz answered Botelho’s question on the potential cost of the assessment.

“We’re probably looking at the $25,000 to $30,000 range,” he said, adding, “other organizations are going to be stepping up to the plate. One of them is the City of Hollister, and I’m pretty sure that the Office of Education will, too. And there’s also community foundations.”

He said there is no dispute that the city has only been paying 2 percent of the budget for the library, but he said he felt that after the council made the commitment to join the county in paying for the assessment, they were in total support of the project.

“It is a good idea to form this partnership and to go forward, but I’d like to see some real and substantial commitment from the city and the schools towards investing in what we have right now,” Botelho said. “If they truly are a partner, we could expect a little bit more contribution from them, and we shouldn’t be nervous about asking for it. That would go a long ways in developing my faith in discounting their track record.”

Hollister resident Marty Richman, whom De La Cruz credited with originally presenting the idea for the TEL Center, said he submitted the idea through De La Cruz to, “get us off the dime because we’ve been doing a lot of talking with no action.”

Richman said he went out on his own to find a consultant who has worked with libraries who estimated the needs assessment would cost $25,000.

“If you’re going to expand that to include technology, it’ll cost more,” he said. “The purpose was to get you to team up with the city. They’re contributing $15,000, and that’s peanuts. The people in Hollister need it and even our best students need it because they come out two steps below the people in Santa Clara County who have all these programs. Every year we graduate another class, so if we wait five years that’s five more graduating classes. We’ve got to get off the dime. Yeah, they’ve got to give you more money for the library, but this is a crack in the dam.”

Richman also reminded the board: “As far as the education folks go, they get 66 percent of the property taxes. They ought to start sending something back. And we gave $108 million to Gavilan and 25 percent of it is being funded by the people of San Benito County. If you look at your property tax bill the biggest add-on is Gavilan College, which has cleaned up at our expense. They need to give some back.”

Mary Schneider, vice president of Friends of the Library, said the organization appreciates that the city and county are moving beyond being reactive in planning for the future.

“In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of reactive thinking and some of it has been dictated by circumstances,” she said. “I spend a lot of time at the library and the ‘friends’ are strong supporters, in time and money, so we feel we’re stakeholders and look forward to partnerships and planning for the future.”

Bret Barnes, director of the Resource Management Agency, commented as a private citizen before the board, saying that he was in a local coffeehouse recently and observed at least 15 high-school-aged students doing homework on their laptops.

“The coffeehouse has become the community center,” he said. “This complex, when it’s built, has the opportunity to recapture that community center feel. I’d like you to think expansively. If there are amenities, like caffeine, it’s a draw and it’s also a profit center. Please think about mixed-use and commercial applications.”

Barrios assured Barnes that the needs assessment plan would consider other communities and what made them successful.

De La Cruz added: “The private sector needs to get involved, too. I see this as a visionary idea that’s going to require a lot of leadership and members of the public stepping up to the plate. It’s a small step that will lead to a big step: shovel ready. It’s our legacy, and I hope I can get the support of the board to move forward. Let’s tell the City of Hollister we want to work together.”

Botelho remained adamant in his skepticism: “It still comes back to the money issue, for me. To be a partner, you’ve got to contribute a substantial amount. I’m not expecting Hollister to pay half the budget. It’s our responsibility to support this, but I also want keep tab on what the costs are and how Hollister is going to really want to be a partner and next budget year when they talk about increasing the $15,000. I’ll support this and see how it goes.”

The motion to move forward with the needs assessment passed 5-0.

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...