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To privatize or not shouldn’t be only question

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POSTED October 12, 2010 2:38 a.m.
It’s time to write a new chapter for the Stockton-San Joaquin County Library System.

And it shouldn’t be just about privatization.

While some of the points in the privatization proposal solicited from Library Systems & Services (LSSI)  have been misconstrued, there is one point that everyone is overlooking from the folks on the seventh story of the San Joaquin County courthouse in Stockton to the various community groups known as Friends of the Library that operate throughout the county. The point is simple. Almost everything LSSI proposes to do the library system can do as well.

The real problem is whether there is political courage on the Board of Supervisors and whether the library bureaucracy is too entrenched.

The library could easily invest in a high-tech wand system for tracking books as well as join forces with neighboring library systems to create a more effective buying consortium to get better deals such as LSSI does from publishers and others.

And they can secure better management by either challenging the current library leadership to think out of the box and then support them in doing so or to find someone that will.

The library is no different than any other county operation. It must change with the times. You don’t, however, see anyone proposing to privatize law enforcement or the jail. The reason is simple. There are so many rules and regulations handed down by the state and the courts it would be real difficult to deliver those services cheaper even if you could privatize them.

The library is less encumbered in terms of what can’t be done.

Let’s, however, be brutally honest. The real killer here is wages and benefits.

Perhaps LSSI will equal the pay but rest assured they will find a way to operate with less staff. It’s the way of the world. The biggest expense in running many businesses and government functions is the staff including pay and benefits.

The first clue as to how LSSI will save tons of money is their pitch that they will offer non-public sector retirement packages to those they rehire. Realistically, the county can’t do this with existing employees. They could eliminate some positions but they’d still be saddled with the higher retirement cost for those who stay on the job.

It is the same thing that is dragging down the US Postal Service for the most part: The cost of public sector retirement.

And it may sound cruel to say especially if you’re an existing library employee but the main thing to remember is the county should be running a library system first and foremost and not view itself primarily as an employment agency.

If the Board of Supervisors could get by that there is one other option that might just fly and not involve privatization but could replace the high cost operations with something more in line with economic realities. They could offer the South County cities of Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop, Ripon, and Escalon a chance to create their own library system using property taxes earmarked for that plus whatever those jurisdictions could generate. It could theoretically include a $25 annual parcel tax if landowners in the new district agree to it.

The South County Library system already has the buildings and the collection.

They can then go shopping for an established public library system to build synergy with. It could be Stockton but obviously given the scale of economy one would need for purchasing it might make sense to approach larger cities or cobble together a Central Valley consortium.

Also, there are nothing stopping public library systems from more aggressively sharing collections across jurisdiction lines such as Stanislaus County and the South San Joaquin County.

The bottom line is the Board of Supervisors have gone from not rethinking how the library system operates for decades to going directly to looking at privatization as the only viable option.

It seems a push should be made now to allow everyone involved to examine all possibilities while studying privatization.

As it stands right now there is an automatic assumption on the county’s part that the panacea for everything is privatization when it might just be making government operate more efficiently on behalf of the people they serve.

And that could include breaking up the current system and starting fresh with new ideas while increasing local control.

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