By Scott Reeder | Special to Watchdog.org
Public libraries are near sacred institutions in our communities but in a time of escalating municipal debt they have become increasingly vulnerable as local governments look for places to cut.
A common refrain among municipal officials is: How can the same of service be offered for less money?
A smattering of cities across the nation has turned to private firms as a solution. The results are intriguing.
For example, Santa Clarita, Calif., saw its annual cost to operate a public library drop from $6.2 million per year to $4.2 million when they hired a private firm rather than have public employees operate the city’s three libraries, said Darren Hernandez, the city’s deputy city manager.
Before a private firm took over day-to-day operations, Santa Clarita’s three libraries were operated by the Los Angeles County Library system.
In 2010, the city of 200,000 made the move to privatize amid protests from public employees and patrons concerned the move would diminish the quality of services provided. But the results have surprised the critics, Hernandez said.
During the first two years of the public/private partnership, significant improvements in service were experienced:
- The materials budget – for books, magazines and other items – has expanded almost 10-fold to $2 million annually.
- Library operating hours have more than doubled.
- Circulation of library materials has increased 15 percent.
- Participation in library-sponsored events such as children’s reading programs has increased.
How has a private-sector firm been able to accomplish this? It all comes down to pensions.
By hiring a private firm, the city was able to avoid paying public pensions to library workers, Hernandez said. He added that California public employees have some of the most generous pensions in the nation.
“Some (California) cities are paying 30 percent or 35 percent of their payroll into pensions.”
The company Santa Clarita contracted with is Maryland-based Library System and Services Inc., the largest private operator of libraries in the nation.
From a broader public policy point of view why would anyone oppose a policy that seemingly improves service and saves taxpayers money?
The big losers in such moves are government-employee unions.
“The downside is for the public employees who feel slighted by not being part of the government,” said Michael D. LaFaive, an expert on privatization at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland, Mich.
Often detractors of privatization have knee-jerk reactions against a “public” library being run by a “private” firm.
“As far as I know, none of these cities have decided to become anarchists,” LaFaive said. “They haven’t given away the library to a private firm. They are still ‘public libraries’ but the city has chosen to contract out with a private entity to run day-to-day operations for the libraries. The city continues to own the books and the buildings. These are still public libraries.”
Despite the savings Santa Clarita and other California cities have experienced, the book has essentially been closed on further library privatization in the Golden State.
The reason? The political clout of government-employee unions.
Under pressure from the Service Employees International Union, the California Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure last year that eliminates most of the financial benefits municipalities have enjoyed when turning over management of a public library to a private firm.
Among the barriers created by the legislation is a requirement that benefits in no way be reduced for employees if the operation of a library is turned over to a private firm.
This essentially eliminates the savings incurred from moving librarians and other staff from public pensions to 401ks.
The American Library Association, which reportedly is on record as opposing privatizing services, did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
But in a statement made to The Atlantic earlier this year, Patricia Tumulty of the American Library Association, said it comes down to questions of access.
“With privatization, the public loses some direct control,” she said. “You’re having the chief operating officer answerable to a third party rather than answerable directly to the public or the county commission.”
But LaFaive said such comments miss the point because ultimately a private firm operating a public institution like a library is responsible to elected officials.
If they fail to perform they won’t get their contract renewed, he said.
In that contract, the city can specify standards they expect the private firm to adhere to.
“The kind of the narrative you’ll hear against (privatization) is they take highly skilled employees and replace them with – I’m exaggerating here — minimum-wage high school dropouts,” Hernandez said. “That is absolutely not the case. Our contract requires that they staff our libraries with at least 11 individuals with master’s degrees in library science. They actually have employed 14 MSL librarians.”
Private firms also foster environments where innovation is encouraged.
For example, in Santa Clarita checking out library books is a fully automated process where patrons set their books on a table where they are scanned by a computer and then checked out to the library card holder.
“They were able to take the staff that was doing that function and put them out on the floor actually serving customers,” Hernandez said.
Another innovation found in Santa Clarita not typically found in other public libraries is a laptop computer dispenser.
“In all of our libraries we have dispensers. You slide your library card in and then it spits out a fully charged laptop and then when you are done, you slide it back in and it wipes the memory.
“I don’t get a bonus for saying good things about them,” Hernandez said. “But it has been a good experience for Santa Clarita.”
Scott Reeder is a senior contributing editor to Watchdog.org, veteran statehouse reporter and journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. Readers can subscribe to his free reports from the Springfield by going to ReederReport.com. Contact him at email@example.com.