The small group of library lovers who met Tuesday night at Beale Memorial Library were pretty clear about what they didn’t want to happen to their library.
They didn’t want to lose professional staff. They didn’t want volunteer groups to be sidelined. They didn’t want the contributions they’ve made to the system with volunteer hours and book sales to be shifted into the control of a private company.
County Administrative Officer John Nilon wasn’t surprised.
Surveys, polls and more than 20 public meetings at libraries across Kern County have delivered the same message, he said.
“What the public has told (county supervisors) is they aren’t interested in a public-private partnership,” Nilon said.
Nilon asked the group to raise a hand if they would support library privatization.
Not a single hand went up.
During more than a month of meetings, similar to the one at Beale Memorial, “I think we had one hand - one person - who was supportive of privatization,” Nilon said.
But something must be done, he said, or Kern County’s libraries will continue to struggle.
“If you want to see libraries that are bigger and more robust the funding source has to change,“ Nilon said.
Kern County spends more general fund money on libraries than any other county in the state, he told attendees, because every other county has other sources of funding for libraries.
Kern County spends $7.2 million on its libraries. Fresno County spends $28 million. Fresno, Nilon said, has a one-eighth cent sales tax.
County support for the libraries has waned in the past months as the county struggled financially, pension increases approved a decade before began to spike costs and other priorities, including an expansion of Lerdo Jail, took priority.
Library hours were cut, the number of professional librarians dropped and the system got by with more temporary workers.
Turning that trend around is going to take change, Nilon said.
People at the meeting were curious about a proposal which is being pushed by the Advocates for Library Enhancement to put a one-eight cent sales tax measure on the ballot to raise $15 million a year to supplement library funding.
Mary Anne Steele, President of the Friends of the Kern County Library, said so many other options have been explored from a property tax to partnering with cities or other agencies.
”The take away to me is that (a sales tax) is probably the best alternative,“ she said.
Tuesday’s meeting was one of the last steps in long discussion of the future of the Kern County Library system that started with talk of privatization.
Early in 2015, Nilon’s office put a proposal on the Kern County Board of Supervisors agenda that would have kicked off the process of hiring a private company to take over operation of the county’s libraries.
Library Systems and Services, LLC - a Maryland company - had been talking to county staff for months about the idea and promised to add more library materials and longer library hours.
But members of the public reacted with horror to the idea of privatizing the management of public libraries.
So the county launched an effort to pull together public opinion about what should be done to revitalize the library system that included a scientific poll, an ongoing county survey and a robust schedule of public meetings.
Now that the process is nearly over it is time for Kern County to talk about the next step to take.
Nilon said all the detailed community response his office has gathered will be brought to supervisors in late January or early February. At that point supervisors will decide how to proceed - whether to pursue a deal with LSSI, a one-eighth cent sales tax to support libraries or some other plan.