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A handy sign that a local government is shirking its public duty: privatizing the library

The list of responsibilities that a local government must shoulder isn't an especially long one. Typically it includes keeping the streets paved and the streetlights lit, maintaining adequate police and fire services, inspecting buildings, sometimes providing water. One hallmark of almost every local jurisdiction is the free public library.

So the proposal before the Kern County supervisors to turn over the county library system to a private company operating out of suburban Maryland marks a major step. If you're looking for a sign that local political leaders are intent on giving up all pretense of working for the public interest, look no further. 

The competing proposals facing the supervisors, who will be meeting in Bakersfield on Tuesday, are whether to proceed with a plan to turn over the county's 24 branches and two bookmobiles to Library Systems & Services Inc., or to place a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to fund the libraries as a public service by bringing in an estimated $15 million a year. LSSI is a private-equity-funded firm that currently manages 20 library systems across the country, including the Riverside County system. 

It isn't clear that the sales tax increase would pass. What is clearer is that a majority of residents polled oppose privatizing the library system

The issue really is about nothing but money. 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. In 2010, its founder and then-CEO, Frank A. Pezzanite, raised hackles by expressing unalloyed 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." Pezzanite made his remarks shortly after LSSI won a contract to take over the Santa Clarita system.

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 management deals. 

There aren't widespread signs that library services deteriorate under LSSI management; complaints on that score haven't surfaced in Riverside or Santa Clarita. But improvement of library services isn't typically on the agenda of local officials who opt for privatization: They're trying to save money or to avoid the investments necessary to bring their systems up to snuff. 

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. In California, the difficulty of managing local investments has only become more acute in the wake of Proposition 13, which took a huge chunk of revenue out of local hands. The Kern County libraries are an object lesson. With spending of $9 per capita, the system is the worst-funded of its size in California, according to Advocates for Library Enhancement, a local group fighting the privatization plan and campaigning to place the sales-tax increase on the ballot. The statewide average, the group says, is $25 per capita. 

Chronic underfunding and repeated budget cuts have allowed the Kern County libraries to deteriorate physically, while the county spends money instead on an 822-bed expansion of its jail. Library employees are among the lowest paid public workers in Kern County, the advocacy group says.

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 money will still have to be found to improve and maintain the physical plant, acquire books and magazines, and upgrade the system's electronic access. 

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," the mantra that also leads to proposals to privatize the post office. The post office, like a free public library, is a service that binds a community together. It's not a business.

You can be sure that LSSI wouldn't be operating the Kern County libraries at a loss, but the compromises it imposes to avoid red ink won't be visible to the average taxpayer. The Kern County supervisors 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?

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com

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