Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Kern County Could Explore Privatizing Public Libraries

Mar 16, 2015

The Beale Memorial Library in downtown Bakersfield (file photo)
Credit Kern County Public Library

In Kern County, the state’s leader when it comes to oil production, the industry not only drives the local economy, it also helps drive the county’s general fund.

That’s because the county’s assessor puts a value on all of the oil that remains deep underground, and uses that figure when it comes time to collect property taxes. When the price of oil goes up, county revenues soar. But when the price of oil goes down, officials are left scrambling to cover the shortfall.

Leticia Perez is a member of the board of supervisors. She says the recent drop in oil prices could cost the county as much as $60 million next year.

Perez:“For us for budgets that we’ve been cutting and trimming over the past few years it could not come at a worse time. It’s a very difficult time for Kern County.”

One of the budgets that’s been under pressure in recent years has been the one for the Kern County Library. Many branches are only open two or three days a week and two-thirds of libraries lack wifi. And unlike many counties, the Kern County library system is almost entirely reliant on money from the county’s general fund.

"We want to make sure we don't just do it for less, but we want to make sure that we maintain services" - Kern County Supervisor David Couch

That's why county supervisors are considering a proposal this afternoon that could result in the privatization the county's library system, with the hopes of both increasing service and saving money.

Perez says the county has been talking with a private, for-profit company that specializes in running libraries for nearly 80 municipalities across the country, LSSI.

Perez: “They have come in they’ve met with me, met with other supervisors and have laid out a potential proposal to increase services, increase hours, to modernize the library if you will, and do it in the same budget framework that we have.”

While the county hasn’t formally decided yet whether to pursue the idea of privatization, and ask LSSI and others for proposals, supervisor Dave Couch says he’s interested in hearing more.

Couch: "We want to make sure we don't just do it for less, but we want to make sure that we maintain services, we're desperately trying to maintain the services that we're providing, we certainly don't want to end up with fewer hours, with fewer programs." 

So how would LSSI provide more services for the same amount or less? Perez says while she hasn’t seen a formal proposal from the company yet…

Perez: “I can only presume that can occur through diminishing benefits to employees. I can’t imagine any other way in which that is possible.”

That has library advocates concerned. Mary Anne Steele is the president of Friends of the Kern County Library. She says while privatization may work for some small city library systems, she questions whether it’s a good idea in a county as large and diverse as Kern.

Steele: “The devil is in the details with any contract. Would LSSI endevaour to cut their salary costs by employing folks who don’t have a background in libraries, who don’t have an interest in libraries? It could. It’s a big unknown.”

And she says she’s skeptical of LSSI’s claims.

Steele: "My experience is that usually the negatives are usually more negative, and the positives are usually not quite as rosy as they're portrayed."

"My experience is that usually the negatives are usually more negative, and the positives are usually not quite as rosy as they're portrayed." - Mary Anne Steele

  Steele also questions the county’s transparency in the process, which is only bringing the issue before the public today after weeks of talks. And she points out the county already has ties to LSSI. Current director of libraries Nancy Kerr used to work for LSSI when she ran a library branch in Valencia. Steele says instead of outsourcing library staff to a private company, the county should consider other options like a special tax to help fund the system.

Both Couch and Perez warn that it’s still very early in the process, and say the public will be involved if privatization talks move forward. Both however expressed reservations about such an agreement, 

Perez: “The notion somehow that it’s going to be the magic bullet for us, I think is naive and while it certainly on its surface offers some savings and some benefits at least in the short term , I fear the long term consequences are very great and we have to consider them along with what are the purported short term benefits.”

And Couch says has concerns that down the road the county could get locked into a relationship with a company, with no other options.

Couch: “We do not want to get ourselves in a position where we put a private company or any entity for that matter, in a position of having some leverage over the county. We just don’t want to be there.”

Still Couch says he’d like to hear more about the county’s options at today’s board meeting. And the privatization push might soon extend to other county services and departments. Later today the board of supervisors will also entertain a proposal to make privatization of local government an official county priority.