Kern County supervisors paused Tuesday on the threshold of a decision that could have led to privatization of the Kern County Library Department.
They voted to launch a 60-day investigation into options for fixing Kern’s troubled libraries before they decide whether to send out a “request for information” that would ask private companies if they would like to take over library operations.
The vote followed more than two hours of public comments, almost exclusively in opposition to privatization.
“If we start outsourcing our services in Kern County to people who are not here, we are not reinvesting in our own community,” said county employee Misty Thompson.
Dave Burdick, a library supporter from Ridgecrest, said the county was pursuing a pie-in-the-sky dream when it imagines a private company could save money, improve library services and make a profit at the same time.
“This shopping list will require financial wizardry the likes of which has never been seen in Kern County before,” Burdick said.
Supervisors made it clear that a public-private partnership is still on the table.
But they said they are open to any option that would return libraries to their former glory.
Supervisor Mike Maggard waxed poetic about his first visit to the Baker Branch library and said something must be done to help a library system that is now only a “shadow” of what it used to be.
Over the next 60 days county staff will hold a series of public information meetings across the county to gather public input on solutions the county should pursue.
But ultimately supervisors felt they had a responsibility to explore ways to save money and possibly improve services.
If the county doesn’t go out and ask the question about whether libraries should be privatized, Scrivner said, then the county will never move beyond the unsustainable situation the county is in now.
In the past six years, as the recession blasted Kern County departments’ budgets, the Kern County Library system’s resources have dropped from $9.3 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year to $7.7 million this fiscal year. That’s a 17 percent decrease.
To handle the losses the county has slashed the hours and days of operation at Kern County’s 25 library branches and two bookmobile programs.
Supervisors are looking for solutions.
And some ideas — other than privatization — did land on the table Tuesday.
Supervisor Mick Gleason said he was intrigued by news that a partnership between county government and the City of Shafter is paying off for libraries in that city.
And Maggard indicated that, if the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, doesn’t like privatization it should bring forward some other options for the library employees it represents in current negotiations.
“There are employees in other areas of our state who have made decisions about how they provide services to the public,” Maggard said. “If our employees want to be part of a solution, now is the time.”
It was clear that supervisors were a bit frustrated by the assumption, on behalf of the public, that they were dead set on privatizing the Kern County Library system.
Supervisors have been inundated over recent weeks with e-mails and letters from people who fear privatization would replace highly trained librarians with poorly paid clerks and the quality and amount of services to the public would be curtailed.
Supervisor David Couch’s office replied to emails with a form letter stressing that the process to review libraries has just started.
“The Board is aware that several jurisdictions across California and the United States have engaged in public-private partnerships to operate and provide library services which have resulted in increased hours of service, greater amounts of books and materials, and at lesser tax payer cost,” the letter reads.
County Administrative Officer John Nilon said Maryland’s Library Systems & Services LLC is the only company that has contacted the county about privatization.
The county has not been in contact with any other businesses that might provide the service.
Opponents of privatization said it was hard not to get that impression after the board hired current Kern County Library Director Nancy Kerr, who ran a library for LSSI in Santa Clarita.
It didn’t help that county leaders said nothing to library management or workers about possible privatization and didn’t seek their advice on the idea before going public with it.
But Kern County Library employee Jasmin LoBasso said she was heartened by Tuesday’s decision by the board to press the pause button on privatization.
“I’m glad they are interested in seeing what the public and the employees want before proceeding,” she said. “I think it’s clear to everyone that the library could do more if we had the resources.”