Thursday, October 14, 2010

At The Library Crossroads

Tonight, the Ventura City Council took an important step toward resolving our longstanding library issues. It's either a baby step toward pulling out of the Ventura County Library system, or a big step toward living with the library service we currently have. I don't know which.

The occasion was a joint meeting with the Library Advisory Commission where we were scheduled to discuss the possibility of embarking on a new strategic plan for the library. But the tenor of the meeting was colored by Camarillo's decision last night to withdraw from the county library system and contract with LSSI, a private company, for library services. (Moorpark made the same jump a couple of years ago.) Some library activists have been unhappy, to say the least, since H.P. Wright Library closed almost a year ago; and they have been agitating for us to withdraw and contract with LSSI as well. A majority of the City Council has stood behind the county library system so far. Would we jump to LSSI? That was the mystery.

In the end, we voted -- uanimously -- to take our first step toward considering the possibility of following suit. If that sounds tentative, it is. Technically, here's what we voted to do, and like I say it's going to sound really tentative:

We voted to agendize an item in the near future the possibility of giving the county the requisite six-month notice for withdrawing from the system this year (meaning July 1, 2011), and we directed the staff to come up with a proposal to put library operations out to bid. The idea is to set up the possibility of withdrawing, seek bids for library operations, and see what we get.

We also directed the Library Advisory Commission to design a strategic planning process that will assist the community in deciding what vision of library service we want to pursue in Ventura in the future. (There was a lot of concern about the overall cost of this effort, so we stipulated that it should be relatively speedy and inexpensive. At the suggestion of Linda Kapala, the library at Foothill High School and a big advocate of reopening Wright, I agreed to see whether graduate students at USC's public policy school, where I teach part-time, could help-out.)

But the main event was the possible withdrawal from the county library system. This was proposed by Councilmember Neal Andrews and seconded by Councilmember Jim Monahan, who opposed closing Wright. Neal in particular has always been in favor of putting more pressure on the county as a way to maintain good library service. My initial instinct was to vote against this motion -- I even said so in the meeting -- but upon reflection I changed my mine, right there in the middle of the meeting. Here's my reasoning.

A lot of people have been wondering whether the county library system can survive without Camarillo. (Presently, it consists of two other larger cities, Ventura and Simi Valley, as well as unincorporated areas and three smaller cities, Fillmore, Ojai, and Port Hueneme.)

As I said tonight, I think that in the short run we will be able to maintain our current level of service. (Although Wright is closed, Avenue Library is open partly thanks to federal funds, and E.P. Foster Library will open Sundays starting this weekend. In fact, there's a big celebration of Foster as part of the ArtWalk this Sunday, starting at 1 p.m.) However, I am not sure we will be able to maintain this same level of service in the coming years -- especially since the county is predicting a 50% increase in pension costs in the next five years.

So I think it makes sense to begin looking at alternatives for operating our libraries. I could wait a year to do this, because as I said I think we're okay for now, but I as happy to go along with the council consensus to move now.

The key for me was the idea of issuing an RFP. A lot of Wright advocates around town have simply been saying that we should pull out of the system and contract with LSSI. But I'm concerned about that -- and I became more concerned after I read the contract between Camarillo and LSSI today.

Whenever cities issue big contracts, they almost always go through a competitive bid. But Camarillo did not do that for library services. Instead, Camarillo negotiated privately on what is called a "sole-source" (i.e., non-competitive) basis with LSSI. This is understandable, especially when you consider that LSSI is the only company that provides library services to municipalities and the company is highly motivated to offer a good price in order to break into the Ventura County market.

Yet this unusual private negotiation process has resulted in pros and cons for Camarillo. The pros are obviously. They're going to get the same amount of service (65 hours a week) for less money -- $1.5 million a year for operations, plus about $500,000 a year to buy materials. (This is a net gain of about $700,000 a year for Camarillo.) LSSI is a large company that has buying power with book producers and so can command good prices, so the materials budget may actually stretch farther.

Yet Camarillo also gave up important things in the LSSI deal -- things I am not sure I want to give up. The county library system maintains the library buildings and I saw nothing in the contract that suggests LSSI is going to take over that responsibility, so that's possibly an increased cost to the city. LSSI promises to provide adequate staffing, but the contract stipulates that all staffing decisions ultimately belong to LSSI. That means LSSI could cut the number of librarians and simply inform the City, rather than seek permission to do so. (I have heard that LSSI has done this in some cases, but I do not know whether this is true.) Also, LSSI retains the power to categorize its library management techniques as proprietary and therefore confidential, meaning the City can't reveal or use what it knows about those techniques without LSSI's permission. The bottom line is that LSSI is a private company. You contract for a service and you get it; but you don't get to know much about the ins and outs of how that service gets provided.

I don't think this kind of privately negotiated deal would fly in Ventura. That's why I think the RFP process is a good way to figure out what the possibilities are. We can specify what service we are interested in -- Avenue, Foster, reopening Wright, bookmobiles, book kiosks, etc. -- and see what the prices are. We could even ask for ideas -- give us an innovative way to provide library service to East Ventura and cost it out. We will know what other costs will fall on our shoulders (and clearly the cost of materials and building maintenance will be our responsibility). We can specify in the RFP anything else that's important to us -- a certain number of librarians, for example, or compliance with the city's Living Wage Ordinance, which requires city contractors to pay a certain per-hour wage plus health insurance.

And then anybody can bid on what we want. LSSI can bid and we will see if they can meet our terms if those terms deviate from LSSI's typical contract (living wage, minimum staffing, etc). The county library system will bid and we can see if they can provide a low enough price. (Having existing departments bid against private companies to provide public services is a growing trend.) Other libraries could bid if they wanted to -- Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Ventura College. And, of course, our city Department of Parks, Recreation, and Community Partnerships could bid as well (maybe in collaboration with laid-off Camarillo librarians? Who knows?)

In the end we might contract with LSSI or some other entity. Or we might not like any of the bids and decide that staying as part of the county system is well worth it. But the point is that we will have tested the market to see what's out there. At this point, I think that's worth it.