With California’s sluggish economic recovery depressing sales-tax revenues, local governments are increasingly willing to contract out services they would never have considered outsourcing just a few years ago. Contracting for engineering and infrastructure work has been going on for decades, but areas such as park maintenance, parking-lot management, and library operations have remained mostly untouched until now. And the state’s largest public-employee union would like to keep it that way.
Only a handful of California cities and counties have contracted library- management services to private companies. Within the past year, however, two Southern California cities—Camarillo in Ventura County and Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County—decided to withdraw from their county library systems and contract with a private company called Library Systems and Services (LSSI) to operate their city libraries. Camarillo has one library; Santa Clarita has three. Obviously, that’s a tiny fraction of the more than 1,000 public libraries in California, but even that modest privatization effort was enough to worry supporters of the status quo. In February, Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) introduced legislation to bar more cities from following Camarillo and Santa Clarita’s example. AB 438 passed the assembly this week on a 43-28 party-line vote. The bill awaits a hearing in the state senate.
AB 438’s purpose is clear: to make it as painful as possible for localities to withdraw from a county library system in favor of more cost-effective private management. The bill lets a city contract for library-management services only if no city or library employees would be “displaced.” Librarians couldn’t even be transferred from one library branch to another, much less laid off. Another provision would mandate that the private operator provide compensation that does not “undercut city or library district pay rates.” In short, Williams’s bill turns outsourcing inside out, effectively requiring private contractors to run city libraries just as the government would.
If AB 438 sounds like legislation only a public-employee union could love, that’s because the bill’s biggest proponent is the powerful Service Employees International Union. Williams doesn’t even pretend to hide the fact that the bill is a sop to the union. An information sheet about the measure provided by Williams’s office lists two contacts: a member of his capitol staff—and Michelle Castro, a senior SEIU lobbyist. Why is a union as big and powerful as the SEIU so worried about a seemingly minor issue like library outsourcing? SEIU’s PrivatizationBeast.org website paints a stark portrait of a public-library system at risk of being plundered by rapacious profiteers. The more nuanced answer is that outsourcing of any kind threatens the union’s monopoly position.
The few California localities that have tried library outsourcing have seen positive results—not only in cost savings, but also in expanded library hours, programs, and services (using existing resources). Riverside County is a prominent example. The city of Riverside had operated the county’s library system for decades, but residents grew increasingly dissatisfied with deteriorating service, and so in 1997 the county board of supervisors voted to hire LSSI to turn the system around. After the first year, LSSI had slashed operating costs by nearly $1 million, all while increasing library hours by 34 percent, doubling the materials budget, boosting circulation by 15 percent, and expanding community participation in library events. Within five years, operating hours increased 86 percent, branches opened on Sundays, and staffing doubled. Over the past 13 years in Riverside County, LSSI helped oversee the construction of nine new libraries and 11 replacement facilities, as well as seven major renovations. The company introduced cutting-edge automation, helping pioneer online services that stretch library dollars even further and give patrons more access to public resources. At the same time, LSSI managed to raise an additional $5 million in funding through grants and donations from local businesses.
When Camarillo quit the Ventura County library system in 2010, officials cited Riverside’s success. They also highlighted the county library system’s bizarre financial arrangement, under which the city paid charges based on a percentage of total circulation. The more books Camarillo’s branch carried, the more the city had to pay in to the system. As a result, library officials asked the local friends of the library chapter to stop donating so many books, because it was costing the city too much money. Withdrawing from the county system and outsourcing the library to LSSI gave the city greater control and flexibility, and improved customer service almost immediately.
Many county and city librarians care deeply about their patrons. SEIU’s priority, however, is accumulating political might and maximizing its members’ job security, compensation, and benefits. The union simply can’t compete with the improved services, hours, programs, and patron satisfaction that private management has brought to libraries. So the union reverts to form: if you can’t beat them, ban them.