Outside contractor for libraries?

Outsourcing library operations has the potential to knock 40 percent off the budget for all 15 branches in Jackson County, says the executive director of the Jackson County Library Foundation.

Jim Olney said preliminary discussions with Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI), a Maryland-based library management company, indicate to him the cost of operating the libraries could be reduced from $8 million to $5 million.

Olney said outsourcing is one of many ideas being pursued in an effort to reopen the library system, which closed April 6 when Congress failed to renew payments to rural counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging. The program had provided $23 million to Jackson County coffers.

"We have to look seriously at it," said Olney. "The voters have spoken twice. What we've been offering to them is unacceptable."

Voters overwhelmingly rejected levies last November and on May 15.

LSSI has managed a 32-branch system for 10 years in Riverside, Calif., where it rehired many of the librarians who lost their jobs when the county-run system prepared to shut down. The company also operates libraries in Shasta County and in Redding, Calif.

The company cuts costs by reducing the number of managers and by consolidating services, said Olney. For library patrons, there would be little difference in the level of service, he said.

Outsourcing is not the same as privatization, said Olney, because the county would retain ownership of all the library buildings.

Bob Windrow, vice president of LSSI, said he hasn't made any calculations of cost savings in Jackson County, despite the $5 million number recently discussed at a library advisory committee meeting.

But, he said, Jackson County's libraries cost $39.16 per capita to operate, less than other major counties in the state, but still more than the national average of $28.

His company has been able to run libraries for as low as $10 per capita, he said.

"If you look at the gross numbers, it looks like there might be an opportunity to do outsourcing to bring economic relief," he said. "Until I know the situation in Jackson County, I couldn't say what it would cost there."

Windrow said his company would be willing to do an analysis of the county library system even without the formality of receiving an official request for a proposal.

Windrow said his company, which manages 50 libraries in the country, tries to run a lean operation with very few managers and a heavy reliance on automation and centralization of such operations as human resources and finances.

Staff also receives additional training and most focus their attention on serving the public. "Everybody has to wear multiple hats," he said.

In Riverside County, Windrow said his company rehired former librarians at about the same salaries. However, his company was also able to increase hours of operation for less money.

New books and other materials are purchased at reduced rates because of the buying power LSSI wields, he said.

All of the assets, buildings and other equipment are owned by the county, he said. The county establishes the library policies and also spells out how it wants them to be operated.

Under LSSI, the libraries remain "free and open to the public," Windrow said.

Portland consultant Ruth Metz, who has worked with Jackson County library officials previously, conducted an analysis of LSSI's operation in Riverside County in 1999.

The company, she said, met all its contractual obligations with the county. "In my view, they are doing a very good job with the resources they had," she said.

But, she said, the Riverside system was in worse shape than Jackson County libraries were two years ago when she did the local study. "(Jackson County) was one of the finest systems in the state," she said.

Outsourcing is only one piece of the puzzle in reopening Jackson County's library system. Finding the money is another, said Harvey Bragg, deputy county administrator. Without a funding source, the libraries won't open, he said.

He said the county is in the very early stages of exploring what to do with libraries, but outsourcing is definitely on the table.

In preliminary discussions, he said LSSI has indicated it isn't interested in assuming the costs of maintaining the library buildings, so that would be an additional expense that would have to be considered under an outsourcing deal.

If the county did outsource, it would have to open the bidding up to all parties, including unions, said Bragg.

He said the county is also discussing the possibility of allowing cities to take over the library buildings. Ashland officials have said they might seek a September levy to reopen their branch.

If a building reverts to a city, Bragg said legal questions remain as to what becomes of equipment, materials and furniture, all of which belong to the county.

With so much uncertainty, Bragg said, "The libraries aren't going to reopen in the same fashion as they did in the past. Personally, I doubt we will be able to open all 15 branches."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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