Kern County supervisors struggled with data from a poll that tested 600 residents’ take on the Kern County Library Department.
The poll, built by political scientist Kent Price, asked people what they thought of county services, how often they used libraries and where they think the county should improve services.
But supervisors were most curious about two issues raised by the survey: whether survey respondents would support a one-eighth cent sales tax to improve libraries (52 percent said they would) and whether they supported privatization of Kern County libraries (52 percent said they wouldn’t).
That second question is what the whole issue is about.
Earlier this year County Administrative Officer John Nilon brought supervisors a proposal that would have launched an effort to outsource management of the Kern County Library Department. The move came after LSSI Inc., a private company that runs public libraries, spent six months pitching the idea to Nilon’s office and supervisors.
Library supporters and many other members of the public responded with thunderous disapproval of the move.
Supervisors backed off and launched a fact-finding effort to test the privatization waters.
Price’s poll was the latest step in that effort.
Nilon told supervisors that the next steps in the effort will involve 26 community meetings across Kern County and a Kern County Library Department survey of library users.
In January, he said, the issue will come back to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Two opposing groups spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, sharing their take on the poll’s data.
Miranda Lomeli-O’Reilly of Advocates for Library Enhancement, a library supporter group that is pushing for a one-eighth cent sales tax ballot measure to fund libraries, pointed out the sharp opposition to privatizing libraries.
And she pointed to a poll response that showed two-thirds of the people surveyed, when told that the tax measure would double the library budget, supported the idea of the tax.
Lomeli-O’Reilly urged supervisors to vote to put the bond on the ballot and let the voters decide.
Rachel Glauser of Better Libraries for Kern County, a group backed by LSSI and supported by local business interests, questioned the poll’s adequacy and disputed its findings about support for a library bond.
“Our mission here is to support you in pursuing a public-private partnership,” she said. “If we are to glean anything from this survey, (it’s that) there is a significant lack of support of imposing a sales tax.”
Price, the author of the poll, said supervisors should be cautious about reading too much into the poll’s results politically.
“We weren’t on a fishing expedition to find out if a tax was a good thing or whether there should be a public-private partnership,” Price said.
He focused supervisor’s attention on one poll feature.
“There are a large number of people who have used the library at least two times in the last year, and that’s much higher than we see in a lot of other cities and counties,” Price said.
And the poll shows, for the most part, that the people who responded to the poll were generally pleased with the level of service they get at Kern County libraries, he said.
Respondents were much more concerned, Price said, about the state of Kern County roads, and they were willing to spend money to have them fixed.
Supervisor Mike Maggard jumped on that information.
He said he didn’t see support for a library sales tax and asked Price if, based on the poll, supervisors shouldn’t worry about the need to improve libraries.
Price hestitated to say the poll was conclusive on that point and said general support for the library could be translated as support for any effort to improve it.
But it is pretty clear, he said, that people want improvements to roads more than they want improvements to libraries.
Price explained that any targeted tax measure will have a tough time reaching the required 67 percent voter support in Kern County because a core of between 25 percent and 30 percent of voters will always vote against any new tax.
Anyone trying to put a library tax measure on the ballot, he said, would need to do some serious new polling to guide their campaign and be aggressive about educating and convincing voters.
Supervisor Zack Scrivner said there is talk about launching a sales tax measure for roads very soon.
Maggard said, and Price agreed, that trying to ask for more than one sales tax increase at the same time would sour voters’ opinions and build resistance to both efforts.
Supervisors ultimately accepted the poll report and expressed support for the continuing effort to gather information about what Kern County citizens want from their libraries.