Nine months of surveying, polling, meeting and debating the idea of library privatization may run headlong into a stark legal reality Tuesday.
Kern County supervisors could find it painfully difficult — if not impossible — to privatize management of the Kern County Library system.
“We may not be able to get to privatization,” Supervisor Mick Gleason said Thursday. “The union might have an issue with us going private.”
Supervisors could ram in the change over union opposition. But they would face the likelihood of long, expensive litigation. A county loss in court would invalidate the outsourcing deal and return operations to county control.
Gleason said the county could try to convince the union that privatization is the right move. But SEIU and the nation’s only significant private library firm, Library Systems and Services LLC, have a long history of nasty clashes.
Without union approval it could be hard to launch a formal effort to privatize, he said.
“I don’t know whether that option is as open to us as it once was,” Gleason said.
So on Tuesday supervisors will face a challenging task: take the public input and sketch a course forward for libraries.
They will be asked to put a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase on the June ballot this year.
They will be urged to reject a tax and, instead, spend more time researching other options like partnerships with other government and non-profit agencies.
And they will be asked to move forward with privatization.
Supervisors first took up the idea of privatizing management of the Kern County Library Department in public in early March 2015 after months of behind-the-scenes talks with LSSI.
Library supporters exploded in outrage at the idea of privatization and county supervisors, faced with an angry constituency, directed County Administrative Officer John Nilon to develop a comprehensive input campaign that measured public opinion about the idea.
Over the next nine months county officials solicited a formal scientific poll of 600 Kern County residents. They held 25 community meetings in every library branch around the county. And they opened up a community survey about libraries which drew in 2,269 responses.
That nine-month public input campaign — possibly the most aggressive county effort in years — has clearly told them two things:
• A strong majority of the thousands of people who were asked about libraries oppose privatization.
• Between 60 percent and 75 percent of those asked (depending on the method of inquiry) support the proposed one-eighth cent sales tax, which would raise $15 million a year to fund an increase in library hours, material budgets and programming dollars.
On Tuesday supervisors will review that information and decide how it should impact their planning.
Miranda Lomeli-O’Reily, a co-founder of the anti-privatization group Advocates for Library Enhancement, will ask supervisors to put the library tax on the November ballot. She said the various types of public comment deliver a clear message.
“They all echo the same thing, that there is no support for privatization,” she said. “The Board of Supervisors should listen to their constituents.”
But supervisors will definitely hear from the Better Libraries for Kern County group, which was pulled together by a local political consulting group working for LSSI, in support of privatization.
A Thursday e-mail from the group urged people to e-mail their supervisors and attend Tuesday’s meeting because “we need to show the Board that Kern County opposes a tax hike for libraries.”
The group’s previous effort to get people to take the community survey and support privatization seems to have been largely unsuccessful.
Efforts to contact the Better Libraries Group for this story did not receive a response.
Nilon said all of the effort to communicate with the public was worth it.
“No matter where we go we’ve heard from people and they’ve heard from us. There is a greater understanding of how things are financed,” he said.
But Gleason indicated that supervisors may have to take a step back from privatization, after being reminded of the role SEIU could play in the process.
Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said Thursday that the Service Employees International Union, which represents employees of the Kern County Library system, has a right to negotiate any outsourcing with the county.
If the union and the county can’t agree on privatization — and can’t resolve their differences through arbitration — then supervisors could impose privatization over the union’s opposition.
But that is likely to be challenged in court. The Kern County Chapter of SEIU, Local 521, is already fighting a lawsuit over the outsourcing of parks jobs in remote areas of the county.
A lawsuit could take years to resolve, leaving the status of the libraries in limbo. If the county lost, it could be forced to terminate any contract it had developed, Goldner said. That could force the county to rebuild a library department from scratch.
To win in court the county would have to show, she said, that there was a clear economic benefit to outsourcing and, perhaps more critically, prove that all the jobs being outsourced were “special” under the government code.
“If the jobs are considered special, like legal services, then they can be outsourced,” Goldner said.
If not, outsourcing them would likely be deemed illegal.
So what other options could the board consider Tuesday?
Nick Ortiz, CEO of the Kern County Chamber of Commerce, said this week that the amount of support expressed in community surveys for a one-eighth cent sales tax were just too close to a losing level to give the idea a reasonable chance of succeeding.
And the Chamber, he said, supports a competing tax measure that could bring in funds for transportation on the November ballot.
The two tax measures could doom each other.
“We will be encouraging the board not to support the sales tax” for libraries, he said.
The board shouldn’t throw out the idea of privatization, Ortiz said. Supervisors should explore the idea and analyze how it would work and how much money could be saved.
“We never have delved down into what it would take and what our options are for increasing services,” he said. “We need to have a sense of what privatization costs. What would it result in. The only way to have a conversation of what comes next is to have all that information on the table.”
But Lomeli-O'Reilly of Advocates for Library Enhancement said that with only LSSI as a viable contractor, there is no real mystery for supervisors to clear up.
“We know where the contract would go and we already know what LSSI is promising us and we know how much money they would take out of our community,” she said.
Her group opposes any effort to pause the process to examine privatization further.
Ortiz said the county needs to explore other ideas like handing management of the libraries to, or partnering with, another public agency like the Kern County Superintendent of Schools
Gleason said that is being explored. But he wasn’t enthusiastic.
His efforts to reach out to school districts in east Kern County, for example, have been rebuffed so far.