- by Ellis Anderson
The idea of privatization surfaced in January at a supervisors’ meeting. As word spread, local consultant and long-time volunteer Laurie Johnson suggested on social media that advocates of the library system should do a bit of investigation.
“My phone blew up,” said Johnson. “People who love the library as it is came forward to help. As we’ve learned more, the support [of the system as it is] has been unanimous, from across the political spectrum.”
The group has started an online petition where people can register their opposition, and a Facebook Page (Hancock County Library Advocates). Dozens attended a regular supervisors’ meeting on February 6th when the board announced a special workshop on the 13th to address the matter.
In an initial presentation to the board in January, a company that manages several privatized libraries across the country, Library Systems Services, LLC (LS&S) claimed they could save the county between $1 million to $1.5 million over a five-year period.
According to Hancock County Board of Supervisors President Blaine Lafontaine in a phone interview with the Shoofly on Friday morning (2/10), a full proposal from LS&S was expected that day, so the board was hoping to have time to go over it thoroughly before the meeting. Lafontaine also said that when the supervisors receive the full proposal, it would be made available to library stakeholders and interested members of the public.
Lafontaine said that the meeting Monday will be a round-table discussion with leaders from Waveland and Bay St. Louis and the library foundation. In addition to considering the proposal from LS&S, the board will be looking at levels of library service and "comparing our operating costs to other regional libraries."
"The process may require conversation that we may not like, but that it's healthy to have."
Also on the table will be the current inter-local library agreement between Bay St. Louis, Waveland and the county.
"The inter-local agreement has been in effect for 25 years and it's never been revised, even though there have obviously been changes," said Lafontaine. "If we opt not to privatize, we would need to start looking at revising the agreement... and see if there's a possibility for Diamondhead to opt into the agreement."
While Johnson and other library advocates say they understand the drive to save taxpayers money, they distributed packs of information to supervisors at the February 6th meeting filled with information that suggests the move to privatize may be “pennywise, but pound foolish.”
These documents included:
- The American Library Association’s official stance against privatization of libraries.
- A list of seven libraries across the country that contracted with LS&S and later terminated their services, presumably because they weren’t satisfied with the outcome.
- A letter from the new director of Jackcon/Madison County Library in Jackson, Tennesse, which contracted with LS&S for six years before terminating the contract early, in 2012. The letter from the director lists several reasons why the county decided to back away from the contract, including LS&S’s use of part-time employees to avoid paying benefits.
Johnson pointed out that the Hancock County Library System currently employees 31 people in five different library branches (Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Kiln, Pearlington and Diamondhead).
“Many of these people have worked for the library for years, under the assumption they would eventually be vested in the Public Employees Retirement System," said Johnson. "If LS&S takes over, every current employee will be forced to reapply for their jobs."
Other concerns the advocates intend to address at the workshop:
- Whether the Library Foundation of Hancock County, which annually contributes more than $141,000, would continue operating as a 501(c)3 organization, because they could not support a for-profit organization.
- While LS&S’s apparent pattern of using part-time employees to avoid paying benefits represents an initial savings, business experts agree that part-time employees often have less loyalty, aren’t as knowledgeable, and the quality of their work may suffer.
- The lack of transparency if a for-profit, out-of-state corporation takes the reins.
“Bottom line,” said Johnson. “The supervisors would be taking tax money already earmarked for the libraries and sending it out of state. That doesn’t enhance our economy or our quality of life here in Hancock County.”
Johnson expects “a large number” of people to attend the workshop on Monday, as well as leaders from the municipalities who will be affected by the privatization and potential closures of libraries.
Lafontaine said that there should be time at the end of the round-table part of the meeting to hear comments from concerned members of the public.
"It's our job [as supervisors] to collect data and then make decisions," said Lafontaine. "I hope all the stakeholders can reach a conclusion and we can move on in the next 30 - 60 days."