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.)