There are those who argue that government is a waste of money and that it should be run by private business. Such seems to be the view of the City of Escondido regarding the Escondido Public Library, as they consider privatizing our library with a for-profit company.
Like all government departments since the recent recession the Escondido Library has examined its operating methods and budgets to make reductions in expenses while still providing the very highest quality services. Our library is one of the most efficient in California, even though our local city funding is well below average. For example, in the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Escondido Library had only .24 staff per 1000 residents, compared to the state average of .46. Our local government funding was $24.32 per city resident, compared to the state average of $48.36. At the same time, our use per hour open was over 100 persons, compared to the state average of 74. Compared to other public libraries in the North County corridor, we have the lowest budget and the lowest paid staff, yet we are in the same exceptional quality league as our counterparts. The reason for this is because of the professional and technical staff who understand the community and utilize their talents, skills, and education to make the best economical choices to adapt to the community’s changing needs. Library staff has already developed a plan to extend open hours to include Sundays and more evenings.
In 2011, without regard for the community’s needs, the East Valley Branch of the Escondido Public Library was eliminated. The reason given was to address the City’s financial woes of the time. There were no other Escondido departments reduced in such a manner. Now the City, like all the other California cities, is facing an unfunded retirement liability issue. Again, without a master plan to address the City’s entire pension matter, the Library as been cherry-picked as the first and only department to be selected to address this issue even though the Library represents only 2% of the City’s unfunded liability problem. Why is the Library always the sacrificial lamb in Escondido? Is it because the City has no respect for, understanding, or vision of the importance of the Library in creating an improved image and successful citizenry? Is it because they do not comprehend that the Library is an important part of the City’s infrastructure; that the community’s needs are not just relegated to streets, fire, and police, but to the educational and economical well-being of residents? The results of the December 2015 Bond Measure survey showed that 75% of the respondents felt that the “Escondido Library plays a critical role in educating our children and youth.”
If privatization is such a wonderful option to operate public libraries, why aren’t the majority of public libraries privatized? There are over 9,000 public libraries in the United States and this private business has less than a 1% market penetration in over 20 years of their operations. This company is eager to get its paws on our Library because it would turn a handy profit for them. The company’s proposal asserts that the City would save $400,000 a year; that amount is 0.4% of the City’s operating budget. Is Escondido willing to give away local control of its busiest and most-loved City department for four-tenths of one percent of the City’s budget? And if that’s not enough, the City should know that it may not see as much savings as it anticipates. The company’s proposal includes a 3% annual increase; the City has in actuality increased the library’s operating budget only a mere 6% in the past 15 years.
You should know that the City has been in discussions with this company since late winter and states that library staff have been involved in these discussions. The truth of the matter is that the staff have been given misleading and piecemeal information; were told to attend a meeting with this company and were not provided with relevant information. To clarify, this matter is not about “outsourcing” as the City continues to misrepresent to the public. This issue is about privatizing the Escondido Public Library, in which a third party controls not only how services are delivered, but what services are offered and delivered.
Among the three of us, we have been privileged to serve over 26 years as directors of the Escondido Public Library, and we have a collective total of 114 years as Mastered degree professional librarians in Escondido and other California cities. We are able to provide a wealth of perspective and knowledge on this very topic of keeping the Escondido Public Library public. We worked for the City of Escondido and its community because we saw and believed in the potential of the community. Since we have retired, we tried to keep quiet on this issue; to allow the City to work through this matter. However, the proposal that is currently on the City’s website severely lacks in detail, and makes one wonder how the City can make a decision on such a vague document. It seems that the total picture is not apparent. We urge you, if you love the Library, if you believe in the sanctity of not allowing private enterprise to take taxpayer money to line their private pockets, to attend the City Council meetings on Wednesday, August 16th and August 23rd at 4:30 to show the City Council that you will not permit the sale of the Library to the sharks and that you will not permit the City to participate in back-door negotiations regarding the services to the people.
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Laura Mitchell was City Librarian, City of Escondido (1991 – 2010); Jo Ann Greenberg was City Librarian, City of Escondido (2010-2012) and Loretta McKinney was Director of Library and Community Services, City of Escondido (2013 – 2017)