Supporters of Kern County's Library Department have launched an effort to put a tax measure on the ballot that would, they hope, revitalize the cash-strapped 24-branch system.
If they’re successful, said organizer Miranda Lomeli-O'Reilly, an eight-year, .0125 percent sales tax dedicated to libraries could go before voters in June 2016.
The measure would bring in an estimated $15 million a year to fund a library department that is currently limping along on roughly $7 million annually, closing many branches for most of the week and getting by with temporary workers.
The money, according to the measure, could only be used to supplement existing library funding.
Library supporters plan to kick off a voter signature-gathering effort at 2 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Baker Street in Bakersfield.
A letter from the Kern County Election’s Office states the group must collect the signatures of 13,269 registered voters to get the measure on the ballot.
Lomeli-O'Reilly, founder of the Advocates for Library Enhancement group that is leading the effort, is shooting for 26,537 signatures.
“We are working with a political consultant to organize a ground strategy to target groups of voters in this beautiful county,“ she said.
But the effort is likely to be opposed by local business groups, supporters of a plan to privatize the management of those libraries to a Maryland company and groups that would like to pursue a tax for road construction instead.
Lauren Skidmore with Kern Citizens for Sustainable Government said passing a tax in Kern County has always been very difficult and asking for money burns up a lot of goodwill from voters.
”We have a very slim chance of passing any tax and I hope that it’s a tax everyone can benefit from,“ she said.
Everyone uses the roads, she said.
”Not everyone uses a library,“ Skidmore said.
Library funding burst into public debate early in 2015 when Kern County Administrative Officer John Nilon proposed a plan to launch a formal process to explore privatization of the management of the Kern County Library system.
Only one company, Library Systems and Services, Inc., provides private management services for public libraries. Library supporters were angered to hear the company had been working with Nilon’s staff and the Kern County Board of Supervisors to develop the idea for months before the proposal became public.
The ALE group was founded to oppose privatization by Lomeli-O'Reilly and Kern County librarian Mandy Walters. It is supported by Friends of the Kern County Library groups.
Better Libraries for Kern County, a group founded by LSSI’s local consulting firm Providence Consulting and supported by local taxpayer and business groups, is opposing the proposed tax measure and pushing for privatization.
Providence staffer Rachel Glauser, representing Better Libraries, issued a statement Wednesday condemning the sales tax proposal as a public union tactic.
"While it's no surprise that public employees are circulating petitions to raise our taxes, our coalition remains supportive of a public-private partnership to bring private sector efficiencies to the delivery of services like libraries,” the statement said.
The Service Employees’ International Union has opposed LSSI in other communities and a spokesman for the company identified the union as LSSI’s only “competition” in an interview with The Californian eariler this year.
Leaders of the Advocates group have said they are not affiliated with the union.
“Our group is leery of any group that wants to come in here, take our money and tell us how to run our own department,” Lomeli-O'Reilly said. “It has to be publicly managed because we believe in transparency and we don’t want to send our tax dollars across the country. We want to invest our tax dollars here at home.”
She acknowledged that the tax measure is going into a busy political season in 2016.
“We’ve heard talk of a school bond in November and we’ve heard talk of a roads measure in November,” she said.
But Kern County voters have never been given a chance to vote for or against a tax measure that would support a robust Kern County library system, Lomeli-O'Reilly argued.
“This has never been voted on in our county before,” she said. “The public deserves the right to vote for libraries.“