Escondido may be turning over its public library to a private, for-profit company. The republican council majority seems to subscribe to the notion of outsourcing services that have traditionally been an integral part of basic municipal government. This philosophy permeates conservative ideology: the less government, the better; the fewer workers who are paid living wages with health and security benefits, the better; the fewer people who are represented by unions, the better.
No concrete proposal has been presented by Escondido…yet. The council majority and its city manager, Jeff Epp, apparently wanted to keep secret their initial exploration of the concept of privatizing the library. If not for Council Member Olga Diaz, the lone democrat on the dais, the people would not know that this concept was being considered.
She spoke out at the June 14 meeting, much to the annoyance of Epp and Mayor Sam Abed. Epp figured there was no reason to alarm the public until after all the details were established. Diaz believed the library was important to a large sector of the community, and a proposed major change such as privatization deserved a full airing from the beginning. In fact, Diaz said at that meeting, she missed the “robust public input” that was formerly a critical part of the entire budget process. Council members, she insisted, need to hear from the public.
Libraries have already been privatized by various governmental bodies around the state and nation. One company getting a lot of this business is Library Systems & Services, Inc., a private-equity-funded firm out of Maryland that manages over 20 library systems across the US, including nearby Riverside County. Los Angeles Times business writer Michael Hiltzik worried about privatization in a February 1, 2016 column.
“The issue really is about nothing but money,” Hiltzik wrote. “LSSI says that it doesn’t impose its own library policies on its clients. A study for the American Library Assn. observed, however, that LSSI contracts subtly put the company in the driver’s seat in mapping out long-term strategies for the libraries placed under its control, often because the public officials handing over their systems didn’t understand enough about libraries to know where to push back.
“But LSSI holds out the prospect of squeezing employees harder to extract efficiencies… Among other changes, LSSI typically replaces public-employee pensions with 401(k) plans, which are cheaper for employers. But as a private company it turns away questions about how much profit it earns on its library deals…Turning management over to a firm that will add its own profits to all the other expenses incurred by a library system doesn’t seem on the surface to be a path to improved library services.”
The way a company such as LSSI can make a profit off of the taxpayers is primarily at the expense of the library employees. Besides offering them fewer benefits, according to a Kern County analysis, the library company could find the savings through “variable work hours” and “work rules that allow cross-training and job sharing.” The company might also make current employees “at will” hires, which means they can more easily be fired or reassigned based on their job performance.
According to Hiltzik, LSSI’s founder and then-CEO, Frank A. Pezzanite, raised hackles in 2010 by expressing unqualified contempt for the public employees who staff public libraries: “A lot of libraries are atrocious,” he told the New York Times. “Their policies are all about job security. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
Escondido suffered library wars not so many years ago when its conservative council majority closed the East Valley Parkway branch library to supposedly save money during the economic downturn. Local library advocates even offered tens of thousands of donated dollars to keep the library open, but the council majority was obstinate. After they closed the library, much of that community-owned facility was handed over to Heritage Charter School in what many critics called the ultimate sweetheart deal. The public was outraged, then, and now.
Margaret McCown Liles, bemoaned privatization in her June 18th A Blue View for Escondido blog. “Typical of Abed and the council majority. They have expressed the belief that services like recreation and the library need to take a backseat to police and fire…It is more important [to them] to support developers than to fund recreational and library services. They are now trying to squeeze more saving from library services while previously waiving millions in developer impact fees. The idea that a library, or a school, or a health system should be run like a business is a bit of Republican doggerel that ignores the reality that privatizing such services increases the cost and deteriorates the services.”
Liles adds that what often happens with outsourcing services is that costs go down, because employee expenses go down, but that lowers the standard for those employees, leading to poorer service and less accountability. “Hard to complain to the City–they will refer your complaint to the outsourcing company–who will not have the same sense of responsibility to the taxpaying voters. The council majority wastes money on frivolous lawsuits, and waives millions in developer impact fees, but wants to squeeze a few thousand in savings out of the library.”
Hiltzik sees an ominous trend. “Library privatization is an artifact of the long slide in spending in public infrastructure, the result of viewing the public budget as an expense item instead of a source of investment. Something more fundamental is lost when a system such as libraries becomes privatized. The sense that government exists in part to provide infrastructure and services that should be immune from the influence of private interests.
“Sometimes that means providing a service at a price that a private company would treat as a loss on its financial statements. That’s the folly of trying to run public services ‘like a business.’ [Those] favoring privatizing their libraries need to ponder this more basic question: If a local government body won’t deliver a service as fundamental to community interests as a library, what is it good for?”
Former Escondido mayor and long-serving council member Jerry Harmon summed it up succinctly. “Always follow the money to understand who wins and who loses when it comes to public policy decisions.”
Rick Mercurio is Alianza North County’s Lead Reporter.
Opinions expressed in Alianza North County are those of the individuals expressing them and not of the publishers.