Stockton and San Joaquin County officials are trying to determine if they can get more bang for the buck by having a private company manage the library system.
The county contributes $5 million per year for library services in unincorporated communities, but it's looking to see if it can get more services and hours for its branches.
Enter a company called Library Systems and Services, Inc., based in Germantown, Md., which runs libraries all over the country. It runs three in California — Shasta County, Riverside County and the city of Moorpark in Ventura County — and the Santa Clarita City Council voted in August to join the LSSI system.
And LSSI has submitted a proposal for Stockton and San Joaquin County.
The Lodi Public Library is not involved in the proposal because it is owned by the city of Lodi and isn't part of the Stockton-San Joaquin County system. The combined Stockton-county system has four branches in Stockton and branches in Thornton, Linden, Lathrop, Manteca, Tracy, Mountain House, Ripon and Escalon. Lockeford and Clements are served by a Bookmobile on Thursdays.
Red flags came up when some Thornton residents questioned whether having decisions regarding their library being made three time zones away would be a good idea. The president of the Friends of the Linden Library, Leslie Billigmeier, is a strong opponent along with representatives from Friends of the Stockton Library.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel said the Board of Supervisors probably won't decide for several months whether to contract with LSSI. Meanwhile, the Stockton City Council will have a study session on the LSSI offer on Oct. 26, according to Chris Freeman, the Stockton-county library's deputy community services director.
Some county residents question how much local control there would be if Stockton or San Joaquin County contracts with LSSI.
"I don't think there would be that much oversight over what LSSI would be doing," said Vince Perrin, who grew up in Lodi and is now Friends of the Stockton Library's president. "The company is out to make a profit. The library should be like police and fire — they're not out to make a profit."
Stockton Friends members are also concerned about the $100,000-plus they raise each year for the Stockton Library. Because LSSI is a private business and isn't required to abide by open-government laws, Perrin said he won't know how contributions are used and whether the Friends can legally raise money.
"If we asked LSSI to account for the money, they don't have to tell us," Perrin said. "We're a 501 (c) (3) operation. We cannot give nonprofit money to a profit-making company. In fact, we don't like that idea altogether."
LSSI representatives, on their company website and their application to Stockton and the county, insist that control will remain in California, not Maryland.
The firm typically hires 80 to 90 percent of existing local employees, but they must be interviewed over again, according to LSSI's website. Regarding employee benefits, LSSI says its program is comparable to a city's or county's benefit plan. One exception may be the pension program, according to LSSI.
"It has been a good decision from the standpoint of Riverside County," Riverside County Librarian Tonya Kennon said. "The county does retain control, as far as the budget goes. LSSI doesn't make a move without our authorization. We're in communication constantly."
Kennon added that the amount of local control depends on the language of the contract that Stockton and/or San Joaquin County signs with LSSI, if it chooses to use the Maryland firm.
Kennon referred to a "white paper" authored this year by Gary Christmas, Riverside's retired chief deputy county executive officer. Christmas wrote about the need for his county to do something different after state funding cuts decimated Riverside County's library budget in 1997.
Christmas maintains in his white paper that LSSI rescued the library system, which has 33 branches. He noted a $900,000 decrease in operations costs, 34 percent more library hours and a 15 percent increase in materials within the first year.
Christmas also credits LSSI with acquiring about $5 million in grant money for the library system, expertise in technology, fundraising and community outreach. Additionally, he said that accounting, automation support, training and human resources have been consolidated, resulting in lower overhead.
"We've had very little turnover with our staff," Kennon said.
Jackson County, Oregon
Judy Baalman, Jackson County's library business manager, is a firm believer in LSSI's services. She maintains that her county has total control over library operations.
"We still control our library very much," Baalman said. "We set our policies, and LSSI follows our policies."
Jackson County, based in Medford, has 15 branches. All libraries there closed in April 2007 when the federal government terminated timber funding to the county, Baalman said. Six months later, all branches reopened under LSSI's auspices.
A major benefit that LSSI provides, she said, is turnaround time.
"Purchasing can help so quickly because it doesn't have to revolve around bureaucracy purchasing laws," Baalman said.
When the county ran the libraries prior to 2007, it took 18 months to get new books wrapped, labeled and put on the shelves for public use, Baalman said. It only takes LSSI three weeks, if that.
Not only that, but fliers, bookmarks and other promotional materials are created a lot more quickly at LSSI headquarters in Maryland, which has its own graphic arts department, Baalman said. Previously, the libraries had to go through the county's graphic arts department, which took a lot more time, she said.
And contrary to what skeptics say about LSSI, Baalman said that the firm is a professional outfit.
"It's still librarians running our library, not Burger King," she said.
The foothill county, based in Nevada City, turned down LSSI's offer to assume operations this year. Instead, the county's Friends of the Library has taken it over.
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors, struggling with funding issues, concurred with a local advisory committee to have a local entity run operations, said county Deputy CEO Joe Christoffel.
"(LSSI) was a good firm to work with and very responsive," Christoffel said.
However, the committee and Board of Supervisors were concerned about whether LSSI would retain the current librarians, leading them to choose Friends of the Library, Christoffel said.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at email@example.com.