Move to Privatize Public Libraries Makes Inroads in Florida
March 16, 2012 | WMFE - As state and municipal governments look for ways to save money in tough economic times, many are turning to privatization of government services. From prisons and parks to child protective services, governments around the country are outsourcing institutions that have traditionally been publicly operated.
Now, some public libraries around the country are also being privatized including the library system in Osceola County.
On a recent visit to an Osceola County Library branch, there were no visible signs to indicate that anything had changed, that the library had been turned over to a private company.
But Osceola is the first and, so far, the only county library system in Florida to be privatized.
Because of falling tax revenues, Osceola six libraries had been running an annual deficit of $3 million dollars for several years.
On January 3rd, Maryland-based, Library Systems and Services Inc., or LSSI, entered into a five-year contract to operate the Osceola libraries.
County Commission Chairman John Quinones said, before LSSI made its offer, the county was considering staff layoffs and possible branch closings.
“We had talked about whether we would change hours of operation or hether we would downsize and now, we have the opportunity of really not doing that.” Quinones said.
LSSI promised to save the county at least $2 million dollars a year.
The company said it will cut costs by consolidating payroll and other personnel services with its other operations. It runs 70 library systems in the U.S., most of them in California.
The contract stipulates that LSSI keep all library staff at their current salaries for at least 6 months. Benefits however, are a different matter because those workers are no longer county employees.
Ed Kilroy, former Director of the Osceola Library System, said there has already been an impact on the staff.
“There are many people who were in the Florida Retirement System and they’ve no longer in it so they lose that vesting.” Klroy said. “And some of the families have been unable to afford the new insurance packages they’ve been offered.” He said.
Kilroy managed libraries for more than 30 years including eight years at the helm in Osceola County before stepping down in 2009.
He and other public library advocates worry that private companies, responsible primarily to their shareholders, don’t have an incentive to invest in new materials and technology. They’re also concerned that the company may cut back on library hours and services such as computer, art and adult literacy classes and kid’s reading programs.
Faye Roberts, President of the Florida Library Association said the statewide group is also concerned about issues of accountability and transparency.
“Who’s in charge?” Roberts asked. “Is it an elected official or is it someone whose primary focus, as a private company, would need to be on making a profit.”
But Osceola Commission Chairman Quinones said the county’s Library Advisory Board is still in place and will monitor any policy changes.
“The county retains, not only the assets but the policy making at the libraries.” Quinones said. “So the county really did not lose anything in terms of how to run the library.”
Quinones also points out that, the county can cancel its contract with the company at any time for any reason with three months notice.
Still some opponents, like Ed Kilroy, worry that the move toward private libraries fundamentally endangers one of America’s oldest public institutions.
“It’s different in Europe and in parts of South America. They have more of a paid library where you have to pay to use the library.”
Kilroy said. “So the public library is truly an American institution and community control of the library is part of that institution.”
The company that’s taking over Osceola’s libraries, LSSI, declined to comment for this story but the company has expressed interest in moving into other Florida markets. The Florida Library Association says, with municipalities looking for new ways to cut costs, private libraries may be on the way for other counties throughout the state.