Saying, “it’s time to climb out of our old cardboard box,” City Manager Jeffrey Epp last week fired back at critics of his proposal to privatize the Escondido Public Library by contracting to Library Systems and Services (LS&S.)
In answer to a critic, Virginia Abushanab, a library volunteer who cited a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as being down on LS&S, Epp, to use poker parlance, saw her supervisor, and raised her a Florida county administrator and the executive director of the Shasta County Library Foundation. Both organizations have direct experience with LS&S.
The conversation started when Abushanab quoted from a letter to the Los Angeles Times by Los Angeles County 4th District Supervisor Janice Hahn, who criticized not just contracting library services, but any services.
“Since joining the Board of Supervisors, I’ve been shocked how often we are asked to approve million-dollar contracts for services county employees could do. Contracting proposals that go through so-called ‘Prop A analysis’ inevitably determine that contracting will save the county money. But too often, contracts go to companies that overwork low-wage workers. Occasionally, contracted companies act irresponsibly, and we spend more cleaning up their mess…”
On August 8, Abushanab wrote: “I hope you members will consider that LLS is exactly one of those companies, paying very poorly and using low-level employees. Are you aware that they have one graphic artist for 80 libraries? Are we going to entrust the priceless and irreplaceable resources of the Pioneer Room into the hands of these total strangers? Is a for-profit company really going to continue the 410 free programs the Library presently offers?”
Epp somewhat puckishly thanked Abushanab, “for sharing the thoughts of one member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. To share something in return, I thought I would share with you a letter the City received from the Executive Director of the Shasta County Friends of the Library. I thought it was a good sign that their ‘Friends’ group has the wherewithal to hire an Executive Director . . . wouldn’t it be great if Escondido was doing the same!”
Peggy O’Lea, executive director of the Shasta County Friends wrote that Shasta county has had this arrangement for about ten years.
In the late 1980s, Shasta County made national news with the closure of its public library system as a result of Proposition 13 local property tax redistribution and the subsequent reopening with severely reduced facilities and services.”
For two decades citizens worked to upgrade services at the county library, which had a low tax base and was only able to open for as few as 20 hours per week.
“By the early 2000s, Shasta County was second from the bottom in state-wide per capita funding (approximately $5 per person), had a collection about half the size it should for the community’s population, had closed parts of a woefully inadequate headquarters due to ADA compliance issues, and had inconsistent open hours as low as 20 per week,” wrote O’Lea.
In 2002, “thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between citizens, business, and city and county local government, Shasta County successfully raised $9 million to qualify for a state grant to build a new $21 million state-of-the-art library headquarters in Redding.”
That building acted as a catalyst “to explore ways to improve governance, funding and services as well.” The County partnered with the City of Redding to create a joint library system. In 2006, it contracted with LS&S to staff and manage the new library system.
“Local control is retained: The Redding City Council operates as the library governing board, with a five-member citizen library advisory committee appointed to provide local input,” wrote O’Lea. “An important goal for our library continued to be convenient, consistent open hours and services.”
She added, “The leadership of the Shasta Library Foundation and three Friends of the Libraries have unanimously supported the contract with LS&S for several reasons:• The LS&S contract represents a wise investment of tax dollars – Our goal has always been to provide the best service to the most people at the lowest possible cost. The fact that LS&S can operate the Redding Library at 60+ hours for less than the City could provide 40 hours can’t be ignored.”
O’Lea added, “Our library usage has skyrocketed: in a city with a population of 90,000, we consistently have had an average of 2 million visits to the Redding Library for the past few years!”
She concluded, “I don’t believe that our community, or any community struggling with library funding, should dismiss any option – including private management – that will allow it to maintain and improve a community resource that is vital to the educational, health, safety, and economic well-being of its citizens.”
County Administrator Bradley Arnold said he was asked by LS&S to contact Epp, “to share information regarding our successful partnership with LS&S. Please note that public-private partnerships are only successful if they align with our public service approach. The Sumter County Board of County Commissioners, Florida (BOCC) embraces outsourcing and privatization of services when the comparative level of service matches or exceeds those provided in-house, and the costs are at or below the in-house costs. When the direct costs are at the same level, the net savings are the avoidance of future liabilities.”
Arnold described how in 2013 the Sumter County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) began investigating outsourcing library services.
“Upon reviewing the process of outsourcing by other library systems around the country, it became clear that the goal of many of the governing bodies was solely to save money to prevent the elimination of existing services versus sustaining or improving the existing service levels. Sumter County chose the path of determining not only that LS&S could match our level of service, but also provide additional services to increase the value of the library system for our customers. Library staff reviewed surrounding library systems across the region to discover what services that other libraries were doing that would be beneficial for implementation in Sumter County.”
The library was privatized in October of 2013.
According to Arnold, “the community was unable to tell the difference between service providers since many of the personnel of LS&S were former Sumter County employees, but more importantly, the level of service initially remained the same, then rapidly increased with the expertise provided by LS&S.”
Epp wrote Abushanab: “It’s time to climb out of our old cardboard box and do something different, Ginny! All of the past efforts to get a new Library have been unsuccessful. They say that the definition of foolishness is when you keep doing the same thing over and over and yet expect different results. When I hear the people stand up and say, ‘leave our library alone’ that’s all I can think of.”
Epp concluded, “I know you are intelligent and passionate. My goal is to take your passion and volunteerism to the local kids and others who use our library, and give it the support of a professional, well-networked nationwide company. You will produce more powerful results for our community than you ever could have imagined.”