Privatizing libraries just tip of the iceberg? | TheUnion.com

Privatizing libraries just tip of the iceberg?

Dave Moller
Senior Staff Writer

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to further explore a proposal that could lead to a quasi-privatization of the county’s public libraries.

County Executive Officer Rick Haffey warned supervisors that similar public-private partnerships might also be worth pursuing in other departments as the county continues to address shortfalls in both sales and property tax revenues.

“This is just the beginning,” said Haffey. “The library system is not the only county, or city, program facing very difficult times.”

Haffey warned that the county’s six-library system could be as much as $1 million in the hole in two years if the current economic trend continues. “By 2013, we’d be almost $2 million in the hole,” he added.

County Librarian Mary Ann Trygg had proposed more than $400,000 in cuts over the next two years, but supervisors balked at that proposal because it would essentially result in a significant reduction in services.

Library supporters expressed concern during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We can’t lose the libraries. It’s almost a hallmark of civilization,” said county resident Don Herrmann. “Let’s not rush into something with contracts giving away control.”

Supervisors were also warned by former county reference librarian Deb Abbadie to be cautious when considering contracting with private companies. “They might not prove cost-effective,” she said.

In Redding, where library operations were contracted to a company called Library Systems and Services LLC of Maryland, hours were expanded, but there was no savings to taxpayers, Abbadie said. Former government employees hired by the private company also lost their PERS retirement benefits, she added.

Retired librarian Sushila Mertens wondered if a private company would be willing to assume all that comes with operating a public library, while respecting free speech and access for all.

“We have a wonderful library system. Let the public reach out and handle the problems,” urged patron Mary Tucker. “I don’t understand how the contractors would help a funding shortage. Where will their profit come from?”

County resident Darell Ford thinks he knows the answer to that question, telling the board the savings would come from payroll through salary and benefit cuts that the private company would not have to pay. “That’s what’s really going on here,” he said.

Under a contract proposal, the county would maintain control over the facilities, but a private company would run day-to-day operations and the library employees would not be county employees.

Longtime County Librarian Madelyn Helling asked the board to consider increasing the library sales tax from one-eighth to one-quarter cent to help cover the shortfall. Voters approved a sales tax increase years ago to help fund the libraries, but the economic downturn has created a significant shortfall in those sales tax revenues.

Under a contract, which Haffey said he could have in place by next spring, the county would maintain control over the facilities, but a private company would run day-to-day operations and the library employees would no longer be employed by the county, but by the private company. Other counties that have contracted library operations with private companies have indicated that most of the county employees were eventually hired by the private companies.

While also agreeing to establish a “blue ribbon committee” to review options to privatization, the board would like to see contract proposals by December and, if the response is favorable, a contract could be established by next spring, according to Haffey.

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail dmoller@theunion.com or call 477-4237.


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