Privatizing County Libraries proposed

By Carolyn Barbre

Library Systems and Services, LLC, which goes by the acronym LSSI, a private company based in Germantown, Md., has submitted a proposal to the county stating that it can operate county libraries more cheaply and efficiently while offering more hours of service.

The company claimed it could keep the county's 15 libraries open a total of 384 hours a week, compared to the present 289.5 hours, after hours were cut last July. This would be an increase of nearly 33 percent. They would also operate one of the bookmobiles four days a week. Neither of the bookmobiles are operating at this time because of budget concerns.

LSSI said it can do all this for $2 million a year and would like the county to pick up maintenance and janitorial type costs at about $700,000 per year.

In their proposal LSSI stated it is currently working with a number of major public libraries and public library consortia across the country to explore new sources of revenue for public libraries to help supplement tax funding. These sources include sponsorships, annual funds, and major gifts and bequests, along with various retail operations such as library cafes, newsstands, book fairs and the like.

They presently represent 20 clients including the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. In California LSSI operates the Riverside County Library System, the Hemet Puboic Library, the Calabasas Library and the San Jacinto Unified School District libraries. Last year when the county librarian was proposing shutting eight branch libraries, two of the supervisors called the company and asked for a proposal, for informational purposes.

At the March 30 Tulare County Board of Supervisors meeting, County Librarian Brian Lewis, told the board that he could offer the county three options, all superior to LSSI's proposal of 384 hours with a $300,000 book budget and one bookmobile out four days on a $2 million budget.

Lewis said by changing how his staff operates, he can up the present hours of operation per week from 281.5 to 385.5, an hour and a half more than LSSI, and do it with a budget of $1.83 million which would include having one bookmobile out 4 days. He called this Option 1, and offered two others. Option 2: Lewis said with a budget of $1.89 million he could increase hours of operation to 415.5 per week. Option 3: Lewis lowered the budget to $1.86 million by again cutting out the bookmobile.

"I suggest Option 1," Lewis told the supervisors. "A modification to this proposal may change with the governor's May revise budget." Lewis said these changes could be put into effect by having librarians operating branches. "Instead of looking at central strength, I'm looking at strengthening outward."

Lewis said he was going out into communities and having meetings. "Things change and I'm changing with them," he said.

District 5 Supervisor Jim Maples said that in the last several years it has been included in the State of the County to look at opportunities to contracting out services if they could be done more cheaply by private contractors. He said he wanted to complement Lewis. "In the past year the board said to look in every corner and see what you can find. I commend you on your new proposals. I see them as very positive things.

Lewis further explained that the library has a $650,000 fund balance, a savings account of sorts for daily operations.

Board chairman and District 1 Supervisor Bill Sanders asked how long the money would last.

Lewis responded that if the governor maintained the status quo, the fund would last 4-5 years. "Very few people can operate libraries as cheaply as I can," he said.

"I think you're stepping up and doing a good job,"

Sanders replied. "People in outlying communities say it is good."

"That's very rewarding to me," Lewis responded.

The other supervisors also applauded Lewis' efforts.

Sanders said there was no action item needed. "I

hope you carry this forward," he told Lewis. He said they would go with Option 1 if the Library Advisory Board was so in favor.

In answer to additional questions from reporters outside of chambers, Lewis explained that the new computer system implemented in October 2003, was so functional that he could now use lower level staff in Visalia to check out books and send high level staff out into the county to operate branches. He said they are also moving the Visalia Library reference desk so one person can cover the reference desk and man the children's area. The county employs five librarians and the rest are library assistants.

Lewis said the previous week he had spoken to the Ivanhoe Community Council about using their library for the Internet and emergent literacy programs. He said he has also spoken with Lindsay City Manager Scot Townsend and the school district about emergent literacy programs in Lindsay. Lewis went on to say he would be speaking with Pixley the following week about expanded hours.

"I'm slowly going out into all the communities," he said. Lewis said the main concern with privatization was philosophical.

"Public libraries are like the last bastion of freedom. When the ancients took over cities they first destroyed libraries. Hitler and Stalin did. We have no editorial point of view. We try to provide balanced information so the public can make up their own minds." Lewis said freedom of information was not a concern of private companies.

Lewis said the proposal from LSSI arrived about two and a half weeks previous. "Staff and I were already talking about branches," he said, "already thinking about some of those things."

Deputy Librarian Jeff Crosby said there have been some complaints about shorter hours at the Visalia library. He said circulation was down, but not in proportion to the shorter hours.

Lewis said trying to get funding for a joint use library in Lindsay had taken thousands of hours, but now that a joint use library was no longer being considered by Lindsay, he had time to get out into the field.

"While he's out in the field, I'm barricaded in my office doing all the work," Crosby kidded with reporters.

Option 1 will have the Lindsay and Exeter branches again open five days and 35 hours per week.

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