Escondido, CA
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Shifting library into private hands would be a bad move

~ Guest Opinion

 

As a resident of Escondido, a professional librarian for 28 years and a concerned public citizen, I wish to express my opposition to any plans to shift the operation of the Escondido Public Library into private hands. This would be a very bad move for the City and the Library for many reasons:

1. Ever since their establishment nearly 300 years ago, public libraries in the United States have been the embodiment of the Constitutional rights of free speech and open access to information without which no democracy can survive. It is the responsibility of government, not private business, to provide, protect and preserve these basic Constitutional rights. And it is the public employees who work in libraries that ensure that mission is a reality. A statement on the Escondido City website says that “the library is and will always be a public library, as will the building, the land, and the collections.” According to the site, the plan if followed through would be “simply” to have the library run by a private company and not public employees. That is the problem. It’s important to realize that it’s not the building, land and collections that are of concern. It’s not those “things” that matter most. It’s the democratic principles of free speech and access to information that are most important. Public libraries and the collections and services they provide which have been established at taxpayer expense, have always been, and always should be, a non-profit, government responsibility. They should not be turned over in any manner or for any purpose to a “for profit” business. I’ve heard some say this is a matter of money. That’s very sad. It is not. This is a matter of principle, not money. The democratic principles that free, non-profit public libraries represent are priceless and should never be outsourced.

2. As a taxpayer I appreciate the City’s desire to look for budget savings. However, from a practical point of view, the amount of public salary savings to be realized by handing over the few fully benefitted public library employees to private operators is miniscule compared to the entire City budget and what could be saved if Police, Fire, Public Works, or other higher salaried public employees were also outsourced. If finding substantial savings is truly the goal, then those other City departments and employees should be the first to be considered for outsourcing. Of course, outsourcing of those employees would also be absurd. Still it needs to be understood that the problems city governments all over the U.S. face with public employee retirement costs will not be solved by focusing on departments like public libraries that generally have the fewest full time and/or lowest paid employees. In fact, even shutting the Library down completely would save the City less than 4% in the general fund.

3. As for Library Systems and Services (LSS), the company the City is considering for outsourcing, they have only 82 library branches (buildings) under their control, most obtained from small cities that were nearly bankrupt and desperate for any solution to stay open. Fifty one of those 82 libraries are merely separate branches of the Riverside County Library system in California and the Jackson County system in Oregon. That’s only two counties in the entire US! All the remaining libraries represent just four additional states (Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Kansas). This is hardly a diverse cross-section of the US, as almost all of the libraries are located in small, rural and low-income cities. This lack of geographic, economic and ethnic diversity provides further evidence of how unpopular the concept of outsourcing library services is in the United States. Yes indeed, you won’t see any great cities with great public libraries such as Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle or San Diego in the LSS portfolio. LSS is in business for libraries and cities that are down and out and desperate. The City of Escondido and the Escondido Public Library are thankfully not in that situation.

4. From a purely business point of view LSS is a very bad investment. There are over 9,000 public libraries in the US. And in 30 years of operation LSS has only been able to contract with 82 libraries. This is less than a 1% market penetration in a business where it has no competitors. This is a very poor business performance by any market standard and certainly not one worth investing in. As a small, private company not subject to SEC rules or openness of records, it is virtually impossible to get objective information about their financial stability, which further adds to the high risk of investing in LSS. Indeed, Escondido officials should not even consider sending our taxpayer dollars to an out of state company with such a dismal business record.

5. It needs to be understood by all that LSS is viewed as a pariah in the library profession. And for good reason. It’s seen as an opportunistic shark that eats up libraries struggling to survive financially. Once under LSS control, libraries are subjected to centralized, cookie-cutter management and new employees are hired at below market salaries and spread thin to provide a few more open hours to create the illusion of “better” service.

What LSS does is not supported by the American Library Association, the leading organization of library professionals in the US. The reputation of the Library and the City will be seriously damaged by entering into a relationship with LSS and that damage will cost the City much more than any potential salary savings. As has happened with other LSS libraries, the Escondido Public Library and the City of Escondido will become the subject of ridicule and even shame throughout the library profession for “selling out” to LSS. We will not even have the excuse that other libraries had that we were in desperate financial stress and had no other choice.

6. Partly due to loss of reputation and partly due to dislike of LSS control of the Library, volunteers will be less inclined to give their free time to support a for-profit business. People will also be disinclined to make monetary donations and most donations will no longer be tax deductible seriously inhibiting fund-raising efforts by the Library Friends and Board of Trustees. I’ve personally donated to public libraries my whole life, but would never donate a dime to a library that was run by a for-profit business and where government officials allowed such a situation to unnecessarily occur. Because of these negative views, garnering public support for a new library in Grape Day Park will be very difficult and getting significant donations from traditional library supporters, most of whom vehemently oppose such a shift from public to private operation, will be nearly impossible. If City officials are truly serious about a new and great Library in Escondido, then they cannot be serious about outsourcing to a second-rate company like LSS.

Finally, let me say that if City officials really feel there is a true financial need to outsource Library operations to save money please be imaginative in looking for solutions. Instead of LSS, consider joining the San Diego County Library system. They are one of the top-rated library systems in the entire US winning the 2012 award for Library of the Year awarded by Library Journal. It would be much more prestigious and productive for the Escondido Public Library and the City of Escondido to join the County library system than to be associated with a scavenger company like LSS.

And if you want to think well outside the box, consider reorganizing the Library completely into a non-profit public corporation similar to PBS. The Library Friends and Trustees could then oversee the operation. They’ve been very successful in raising millions of dollars over the years to support the Library. Such an independently run Library would then also be eligible for a much larger number of public and private grants, subsidies, loans and donations.

Although I currently work for the Escondido Public Library, do not think that I write this letter out of personal self-interest. Let me assure you that if the only way I could prevent the Library from falling under LSS control was to resign my position, I would do just that in a heartbeat. As a librarian with three decades of experience working in public service for libraries, I urge you to pursue a path that keeps our Library aligned with the 99% majority of public libraries in the United States that are still of the people, by the people, for the people, and managed and operated by public employees who have pledged to serve the people through their government and not a private corporation.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

4 responses to “Shifting library into private hands would be a bad move”

  1. Sid Colquitt says:

    Escondido’s proposed 2017/18 budget projects library expenses at $3.670,055 with little income other than for fines estimated at $62,000.Without much income the library is a significant claim on the city general Fund. This makes it’s easy to see why the City wants to explore outsourcing. The library’s compensation expenses (labeled “Employee Services”), including proposed pay increases for staff’ totals $2.8 million of the $3.7 million total budget; that’s a whopping 75%.

    Seemingly municipal compensation packages are built upon “Step increase” models (the longer your there, the more you make). So the presumption is that compensation expense as related to total expense gets worse over time. Outsourcing basically removes employees from the City payroll. And after some buyouts and adjustments for retirement benefits for senior staff, employees become a part of the outsourcing company. Going forward this fixes costs for the city. No doubt it helps city finances, though it may not be in the best interest of proposed former city employees.

    City Manager, Jeff Epp, is doing his job and is right to research outsourcing library operations and to bring it before the City Council for discussion. However, it’s our hope that the Council will not look at the issue only through the lens of an accountant. There are significant less tangible points of view to consider; one being public perception that they are losing local control or that the new manager won’t show the same caring attention to residents or that some long-term employees got gypd in the name of saving a buck.

    With City budgets balanced and reserves at an all time high Library Out-sourcing” may be unnecessary at this time and could be a disservice unless there’s a significant savings for the General Fund and tax payers.

  2. Laura Kohl says:

    As an Escondido teacher, and frequent Escondido Library customer, I am opposed to all aspects of “selling” our treasure to a private entity. I know full-well that I can ask any employee to help me broaden a search, find a hidden gem, or answer a research question. I am with educated and committed colleagues. And, my students feel comfortable to do their own research there. Do not cheapen the services that we depend on. There is NOT one good reason to destroy the Public Library System – and there are many reasons not to. It is an embarrassment that it is even discussed. Escondido, I am worried that you are disrupting our quality of life by these cheap, small-minded efforts.

  3. R Ketchum says:

    LSSI provides mediocre, substandard library service at a higher cost than it takes to run a library as a non-profit or government entity. It would be a very bad choice to privatize the Escondido Public Library, and irreversible.

  4. none given says:

    “Escondido’s proposed 2017/18 budget projects library expenses at $3.670,055 with little income other than for fines estimated at $62,000.Without much income the library is a significant claim on the city general Fund”

    the library isn’t reliant on late fees, etc. it relies on taxes collected by citizens so why don’t you ask the ones who pay for it if they want to keep doing so?

    when you put a local library in the hands of a private entity focused on making budget they don’t care (ah the word “care”) as much as say Librarians with a Masters. why not showcase urban fiction (that’s about black people committing crime mostly) books and sensationalistic books. why not include a infant to toddler play area that makes noise? why not expand the Hollywood dvd selection? all these ideas I list would increase patronship and all would reduce the intellectualism within the establishment. its called dumbing down society and dumbing down society is done for the benefit of few. Private held libraries allow the library to be bought in profound ways for the savings of which isn’t even the Escondido board’s money, its tax payers!

    this guy who wrote the op-ed is right. the argument that Sid Colquitt puts forth is crap, he is saying “the library doesn’t pay for itself” well no crap you fool its tax dollars.

    yes I write like crap but at least I have some sense.

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