On Privatization

There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

[…]

A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. 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.” –New York Times

The quote is troublesome to me for a couple of reasons and I’m not even referring to the surface ones. First, rather than exalt how wonderful his business is, Mr. Pezzanite is being quoted saying how craptactular other non-LSSI managed libraries. Which, for the curious, is roughly a ratio of 63 LSSI locations versus 16,608 non-LSSI locations; or, expressed differently, means that 99.7% of public libraries suck and 0.3% of all public libraries rule. Sure, I’m being literal about the term “a lot”, but since this is antagonistic hyperbole rather than telling the interviewer how they are going to amaze the citizens of Santa Clarita with the wonders they are going to bless them with, there certainly is room for taking some liberties. My advice in this vein would be that the takeaway quote (“They suck and we don’t”) is not exactly a viable marketing strategy unless your target audience are fans of professional sports. It’s a weak jab which doesn’t appear to be made from a position of strength.

Second, if my town is going to hire someone to run the library, I would want someone who would tell me, “This is a sacred place and we are going to continue to keep it that way.” Same goes for schools, police & fire, the post office, and whatever governmental activity the private company was taking over. Why? I wouldn’t want someone with a ‘ho-hum’ attitude managing this government service; I want someone who will treat the library like the damn cathedral of knowledge that it is. Mr. Pezzanite’s offhand dismissal of this type of regard for the library ignores an inherent strength of the library (an institution of learning and knowledge)

Third, in rushing to throw the public employees under the bus, Mr. Pezzanite misses a larger point. Pension management and funding is handled at a government level that is higher than a library staffer. To say that the pension plan and unionized employees are the major problem in this equation misses the point regarding mismanagement and inadequate contributions to the pension fund itself. With that being said, it’s not a stretch to see the benefits (no pun intended) in having the city of Santa Clarita privatize the library system, thus relieving themselves of onerous contributions to health and retirement plans.

I won’t even address the “do nothing” portion of the quotation since it’s just such an ignorant and inflammatory display that it doesn’t warrant a proper reply.

The bottom line is that LSSI is going to take a library system currently costing $5 million down to $3.8 million. LSSI has stated that they will hire existing employees at their current salaries, provide ‘generous’ benefits, and educational reimbursement ; on the other hand, they have stated they will reduce costs by reducing overhead and replacing unionized employees. So, that leaves a lot of questions as to where this $1.2 million reduction will originate. I’d be interested to hear more about how that gap is going to be closed. Certainly not through cutting hours, as they have been proposed to expand. Will it be through materials? Services? Or is there enough administrative bloat to remove to make up the difference?

Time will tell on this one. For me, I place myself with others who will be watching a private profit company delivering a public service very closely.

(Norman Oder at Library Journal has a good write-up on the whole deal. Go read it for the full spectrum.)

11 thoughts on “On Privatization

  1. If there was a way to privatize the library and still keep it free to the public, then the library would have even more freedom to conduct its business and fulfill its mission. For example, every other October, our Board of Elections locks down our multi-purpose room for Early Voting. For a solid month, we can’t do any programming or activities of our own. This crushes Teen Read Week as well as any other programs we might want to do to take advantage of the Halloween spirit. Because we’re publicly-owned and the Board of Elections is federal government, they can do that, and there’s not a thing we can do to stop them. Now, if the library was private, we could stand at the front door in our wizard hat screaming “You shall not pass,” and you know what: they wouldn’t pass.

    With that being said, the most important thing is to keep the library free. That’s what a public library does. Private enterprise is not known for keeping things at no cost.

    Oh, and this jackass is the last person I want to see running a library.

    • Just to be clear: the library will remain free to the public of Santa Clarita. What changes is how the money is allocated within the system. As they are moving to withdraw from the system, their taxes will go to support the smaller group of libraries.

      The big change is that they want to offer more hours, the same level of staffing at the same salaries (for existing employees), and more services. That’s a pretty big stone to be squeezing blood out of. And in this case, the blood is librarian salaries and replacement by paraprofessionals.

  2. Thanks for this.
    About privatizing:
    Privatizing libraries may seem to get one some surface freedoms, but employees and ‘products would, of course, be brought in with the bottom line, and if you’ve seen, say, The Corporation, or used a Red box instead of a video store, there’s little doubt what that line is or how it would work. Look at the efficiency of publicly owned rail systems in Europe, and the *catastrophe* that continues from the UK’s privatization. Go several times to a Dr. or hospital in Canada, France, England, Wales; then go to several in the U.S. and see how you fare, who gives better service, more efficiently, with less harm to human beings. Privatization has costs, and we seem to forget that in the U.S. *every time.* It doesn’t mean you’re free: it just means you’re free of *government* which has some nominal (read “legal”) obligation to listen to its constituents. Businesses *don’t.* Especially not if they’re *on contract* from the government (Blackwater, anyone?).

    • I’m really not sure about this reply. I get the gist of what you are getting at, but I would not compare Blackwater to LSSI. That’s just silly.

  3. Thanks for writing about this.

    The cost reduction for LSSI is always staff. The hire staff back for less money and smaller benefits package. These guys never talk to libraries or librarians, they only talk to City Managers and County Administrative Officers. The libraries don’t even know what’s going on until the CAO fills them in. They have a total and complete disdain for public libraries.

    This fight was really between the City of Santa Clarita and LA County Libraries. Santa Clarita didn’t like the reduction of services, so they pulled out.

    Then the realized how expensive it is to run a library. Furthermore, that the property tax revenue they would get for pulling out of LA was much less than the benefit they received for service from LA County Libraries. This was their only option and they couldn’t afford to run it on their own.

    It’s also interesting that LA County Library just stopped renovating one of the branches since it is no longer part of their system, and Santa Clarita is surprised, local politics.

    • Jeff, you nailed the real issue here: what Santa Clarita wants versus what Los Angeles County is providing. Their assessment is the best case scenario; which entails getting out of the system without a hitch. It will be interesting to see what the reality turns out to be.

      I do realize that LSSI *says* they will hire people at current salaries, but I’ll wait to see what actually happens. I never cease to be surprised sometimes.

      Thanks for the comment, as always!

  4. To throw some more information into the mix, I was searching around for more information when the New York Times article was published and found the agenda for the meeting where Santa Clarita discussed withdrawing from the Los Angeles County System here: http://apps.santa-clarita.com/agendas/CouncilItemPrint.aspx?ID=5198

    It also has financial information, both in the agenda report and in the links at the very bottom. It’s interesting to see that one of the major disputes is that according to Santa Clarita,LA County refused to allocate additional funds for the construction of a new library, despite Santa Clarita showing the income they provided to the county.

    As for LSSI’s involvement, from what I’ve read one of the areas that they significantly cut spending is in the area of pensions – which is what has crippled the American automakers as well, providing 401K plans instead.

    I do agree that the comments by Pezzanite were needlessly harsh, but I feel there also has been a lot of misunderstanding about what this move actually means. As you mentioned in the comments, the services are going to remain free for the library’s communities, what is changing is how the library is being managed.

    • That’s the benefit and drawback of a county system. You put all your money in one pot which turns a bunch of smaller amounts into a bigger one; with that you have bigger and better buying power. The downside is that the money is not always allocated in an equal distribution. And in this case, it sounds like they got tired of being turned down for their local stuff.

      Thanks for your comment. And for looking into it for yourself, which I think was lacking in this situation from a lot of people.

  5. It’s unbelievable that people are actually extolling the virtues of privatization! Soon our public libraries will be outsourced to India…lovely….

    • I can’t see that level of outsourcing and I’ll tell you why. Libraries have always been about the local which is something that cannot be easily replicated by someone overseas. While others may point to certain operations that could be outsourced, I would say that it would not be enough to make the practice worthwhile presently.

      Also, woe to the first government official that ships this kind of service overseas.

      I would not dismiss private management out of hand. I’d like to get a better look at it before dismissing it. There might be some things that could be learned from private management.

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