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City officials are gunning to turn this Kern County library into a police station. Residents are fighting back

Students complete arts and crafts projects at the McFarland library.
Kern County Libraries
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Kern County Libraries
Children participate in arts and crafts projects at McFarland Branch Library. City officials proposed turning the community center into a police station earlier this year, but residents are pushing back.

Earlier this year, city officials in the tiny Kern County city of McFarland proposed converting the local library into a police station. While the library’s hours are expanding next month, the fate of the facility remains uncertain.

Residents of a small Kern County farm town are fighting to preserve their local library after city officials proposed converting the beloved institution into a police station earlier this year.

The McFarland Branch Library is bustling with activity on a balmy Thursday afternoon. Children are zipping around, reading books, playing games, and just hanging out in the safe, air-conditioned space after school.

Among them is 11-year-old Ruben. He walks a short distance from Kern Avenue Elementary to the library after class.

“There's a lot of friends that I get to be here with. It's quiet,” he says. “Sometimes you can play on the Chromebooks and if not then you can play a lot of the board games they have.”

But Ruben’s favorite after-school spot could soon become a police headquarters if the Kern County Board of Supervisors approves a city proposal. McFarland Police Chief Kenny Williams says a new headquarters is desperately needed to accommodate the growing department.

“If you look at the police department, it is in dire need of some room,” he says.

McFarland is a small community of about 13,000 people, located in the middle of vast Kern County, California’s agricultural heartland. Williams, who is also the city manager, says McFarland has struggled to generate revenue with a limited business and tax base.

While the city has $3.3 million available from a public safety bond, it’s not enough to build a new police station, he says.

“So we started looking at alternatives,” he says. “And one of those was the library.”

The library could be remodeled and converted into a police station for a fraction of the cost, Williams says. He and city council members penned a letter in January urging the county to let them move ahead with their plan.

But residents are pushing back; an online petition supporting the library garnered nearly 3,000 signatures and frequent visitors are quick to express their love for the facility.

“It's not fair that they're, you know, trying to shut it down,” says Marisol Barrios, a McFarland resident who visits the library regularly with her young son. “This community is so small, so there's not very many places for us to really go.”

10-year-old Adam agrees.

“Kids should have a safe space to go to,” he says. “I really hope they don’t take the library away from us.”

One problem is that the library was closed during the first years of the pandemic and reopened for just two days a week in January. Once students heard about the city’s plans, some of them stopped coming, says Ruben.

“Most of the kids stopped coming because they actually thought that it was gonna get taken away,” he says.

The situation in McFarland is a byproduct of the state’s library systems, which are locally funded. That means access to books and learning often depends on your ZIP code.

Kern County has the least-funded library system in the entire state. Just over $7 per person is spent on library services in Kern. That’s compared to $45 per person in neighboring Los Angeles county, or a whopping $128 in wealthy Marin County.

That disparity makes staffing Kern’s 22 library branches a challenge. Despite that, the county is working to expand hours in McFarland. By mid-September, the branch will be open five days a week, seven hours a day, says Andie Sullivan, the county’s director of libraries.

“I think it's important, especially in our rural communities, to make sure that the libraries are open as much as possible. And the McFarland community loves this library, so being open five days a week is such a huge benefit,” she says.

Still, the library’s fate remains in flux. The county owns the building, and so any decision to lease or sell it to McFarland ultimately rests with the Board of Supervisors. A spokesperson said the board hasn’t decided yet on the city’s proposal.

Chief Williams says he would respect the county’s decision, but he’s worried for his city.

“I look at it and I say, ‘I don't know where we're going to go as a police department now, because we don't have enough money to build ground-up,’” he says.

In the meantime, Ruben, Adam and other Kern Avenue Elementary students look forward to spending their afternoons at the library.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.