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Beale Memorial Library on Truxtun Avenue.

A lot of ground work went into plans to privatize Kern County's libraries long before the concept came to the public's attention earlier this month, documents obtained by The Californian show.

They reveal that Library Systems & Services LLC Vice President Robert Windrow was talking to Kern County Board of Supervisors Chairman Leticia Perez's office and the County Administrative Office in early June of 2014.

Investigation of the concept morphed into active talks in November, just days after supervisors hired LSSI employee Nancy Kerr as Kern library director.

By early January, LSSI was discussing with the CAO's office how to engage with the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, which represents library employees.

And, emails indicate, county officials felt the downturn in Kern County's financial fortunes had created an opportunity to outsource library jobs and realize a "greater return on investment in our Library system."

The documents seem to reflect what some library system supporters have alleged: that a lot of work on the privatization plan has been done behind the scenes, without public input.

But top county administrators say nothing out of the ordinary has been going on, no decisions have been made and a deal with LSSI is just one of many ideas being explored to reform the library system.

Vendors approach the county all the time with new, innovative ideas for doing things, said County Administrative Officer John Nilon. County staff sift through those pitches and then ask the Board of Supervisors where it wants to take the conversation, he said. That happened March 17.

"For us to go to the public before going to the Board of Supervisors would be unusual," Nilon said. "It's there that we want to begin."

MAKING BIG PROMISES

Library Systems doesn't think of what it does as privatization.

"We don't privatize. We outsource," said LSSI spokesman Mike MeCey.

The for-profit Maryland company doesn't own the buildings, books, vehicles or other hard assets of the libraries they take over, he said. They don't set library policy.

What they do, according to a detailed "preliminary assessment report" prepared for Kern County, is take over system operations, increase the hours and days libraries are open and ramp up the amount spent on materials.

To prepare the report, the company visited every Kern County library branch and analyzed the county's average costs and library budget.

MeCey said the report is just a collection of "broad observations" and simply identified the potential for LSSI to help Kern.

But the report makes some big promises.

Kern County's current library budget would stay at $7.9 million a year and current pay levels for county staff would largely stay the same. But library hours would increase by 20 percent at all branches.

Five branches -- one in each supervisor's district -- would be open six days a week, including a four-hour Sunday opening. Beale Memorial Library would be open seven days a week.

The number of programs would double. And the book budget would increase from $258,000 to $1 million a year.

The concept is deeply attractive for Kern County, where budget cuts have left some of Kern's 25 branches open only two or three days each week.

But from where would the money for all that come?

From turning county employees into private ones.

BUILD UP

Documents show that initial contacts between Kern County and LSSI started in June 2014 with Perez's staff and the County Administrative Office.

MeCey said LSSI did not pitch the idea to Kern.

"We get calls all the time from different cities and counties. This was no different," MeCey said. "We had some folks who were interested in hearing more. We don't actively pitch our services."

But Kern County supervisors and administrators tell a different story.

"They contacted our office. Prior to them contacting us, I had never heard of this service," Perez said.

County Administrative Officer John Nilon said it's his understanding LSSI approached county supervisors, which would not be all that unusual. All kinds of proposals land on all kinds of county desks and they're looked at, he said.

Supervisors Mike Maggard and David Couch said they still have not met with LSSI, though their top staffers have.

The paper trail on the outsourcing idea goes quiet for a few months after the June contacts.

But in late October, supervisors hired Kerr to replace retired Director Sherry Gomez. Supervisors picked Kerr, a library branch manager working for LSSI in Santa Clarita, over Acting Kern County Library Director Georgia Wages.

Wages has been in management in the Kern County Library Department for 15 years, moving up from a branch manager into the department's administrative structure at about the time Kerr got a job as a secretary in the Elmhurst Public Library in Elmhurst, Ill.

Supervisor Perez said the decision to hire Kerr, while it looks curious in context of the talks with LSSI, had nothing to do with the company or the concept of library privatization.

"We interviewed all the potential candidates and she really shined as a person who thinks outside the box," Perez said. "I do not remember ever speaking to her about privatization. Nancy Kerr never advocated for privatization in her interview."

Nilon said he wasn't surprised the board picked Kerr, not because she'd worked for LSSI but because she "has a wealth of experience in creative thinking."

But within days of hiring Kerr, LSSI reached out to Perez's staff and officials in the CAO's office. Over the next few months, top LSSI officials visited Kern County multiple times to meet with supervisors, their staff and Nilon's office.

They met Perez's field representative Danielle Humphrey on Nov. 13.

But they didn't land a meeting with Perez herself, emails show, until Windrow, LSSI's vice president, and MeCey tracked her down at a California State Association of Counties meeting in Anaheim.

They set a meeting at Steakhouse 55 in the Disneyland Hotel. Perez said the routine meeting took about 15 minutes.

"As supervisor and especially as chair, I really think it's important that I meet with every single interested party," Perez said. "As an elected official, that's my job."

County staff, the email trail shows, planned to take the concept of library privatization to the full Board of Supervisors in closed session Dec. 2 as part of a discussion about upcoming union negotiations.

WORKERS

The idea of cutting into library employee costs to save library operations isn't new. For years Kern County library leaders have been working to use part-time and temporary workers to maximize operations.

Presently, Kern's Library Department employs 151 people. Only 58 work full-time. Only 49 have retirement benefits.

Even Kerr has a base salary of less than $100,000 a year.

But LSSI's preliminary plan for Kern County only works, its report states, if the company has free rein to control employee costs. There would be no union representation or civil service protection for employees. All employees would be subject to firing at any time without cause.

And the company would focus on bringing in volunteers to do library work.

If the county got out from under its pension costs, that alone would make a sizable impact on the library department's bottom line.

County employee pensions, in general, cost the county an additional 39 percent of their salary. LSSI offers employees a 401 (k) investment plan with a company match.

It's clear that both county officials and LSSI knew going after public employee jobs would trigger a fight with the union.

"In speaking with Devin Brown, our Employee Relations Officer, he'd like to meet with you regarding our strategy for engaging SEIU," wrote Jason Wiebe, a county administrative analyst, in a Jan. 2 email to LSSI VP Windrow.

(Wiebe told The Californian that he simply was telling LSSI that county staff needed to give SEIU prior notice before taking the privatization idea -- partly a personnel issue requiring bargaining -- to the Board of Supervisors).

Windrow and MeCey proposed a Jan. 14 meeting; Wiebe confirmed the meeting and expressed the county's interest in "moving this forward in time for the new fiscal year."

"With the price of oil way down, our assessment rolls are looking pretty grim for next year," Wiebe wrote. "The timing is ripe for realizing a greater return on investment in our Library system."

Perez said that without seeing an official proposal, it's hard to judge whether the benefits LSSI might offer are worth the decision to move to a private workforce and abandon the "intangible" values that the county's quality, competent library employees provide, she said.

COUNTY PAUSES PROCESS

The plan to issue a request for information and launch library privatization finally did come to the Board of Supervisors in an open session nearly two weeks ago.

But news had already gotten out that the plan was in the works.

Library supporters bombarded supervisors with emails and letters opposing privatization. And they complained strongly that so much work on the plan had been done behind the scenes before it was shared with the public.

Supervisors unanimously voted to pause before moving forward with privatization and committed the county to a series of public hearings before the idea moves forward -- with LSSI or someone else.

"The (request for information) is to see if there's anyone else out there," Wiebe said in an interview. "LSSI is not a good resource to ask that question."

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