Library deal deserves praise

Don't expect dancing in the streets over county commissioners' deal this week to reopen libraries using a private contractor.

The hours buildings will be open will be less than they were before, dramatically so in some cases.

Employees likely will be doing their jobs for skimpier benefits, a fact that already has begun to attract criticism.

And the reopening isn't necessarily a permanent deal. County officials figure they have enough money to run libraries for three years before they have to find another source to tap.

But if this isn't a danceable moment, it's at least worthy of polite applause in the direction of county leaders who appear to have patched together a workable plan in the face of much disagreement and uncertainty.

The deal this week would reopen all 15 branches for $4.3 million annually, about half the cost and with about half the hours offered before the buildings closed in April. A Maryland-based library management company would take over operation from county government.

The plan would, among other things, shut out the union that has protected employee wages and benefits over the years. When libraries do reopen, they will do so with less knowledge, both because some librarians already have moved away from the area and because others will decide they can't afford to return without the union's protection.

That's a real loss, one of several under this plan.

Why are we applauding it, then? Because it seems government heard the message the public sent and responded.

County leaders faced a real dilemma after learning this year that the county budget would lose $23 million annually in federal funding. Voters said "no" to a new levy to run libraries at the previous $8 million-plus level, but most didn't want the doors to close entirely. It quickly became clear that the closures were a bad public-relations move for the county if nothing else.

Whether this new plan is enough to change that remains to be seen. Our preference still would be for a fuller system than the one we look likely to get right away.

But the compromise commissioners reached this week is a positive step nonetheless, significant because it will return library service to the public and because government leaders found a way around the closures.

For that, the commissioners and County Administrator Danny Jordan deserve our thanks.

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