ESCONDIDO — Rejecting pleas from scores of residents at a marathon meeting, an Escondido City Council majority voted Aug. 23 to move toward hiring a private company to manage and operate its public library.
Mayor Sam Abed was joined by councilmen John Masson and Ed Gallo in approving a motion that instructs city staff to negotiate contract terms with Library Systems & Services, a Rockville, Maryland-based company that manages nine library systems in the state including 36 branches in Riverside County.
In addition to saving the city about $400,000 a year in operating expenses — $2 million during the course of a five-year contract — outsourcing the library will improve services for residents, Abed said. The company says it will open the library an additional day, on Sundays, and commit to investing $250,000 a year in new materials.
“We have a good library but it can be better,” the mayor told a chamber full of angry opponents. “We can make it better. If LS&S does not make it better, I will break the contract after one year. … We will not let you down. We are going to protect the library. We are going to improve the library.”
Officials say savings from the library’s operational budget will help the city meet its burgeoning obligations to the California Public Employee Retirement System, which are projected to increase from $20.8 million this fiscal year to $36.8 million in five years. A budget adopted by the council in June anticipates pension deficits of $1.8 million next year and $6.5 million in 2018 without new revenue or reduced expenses, according to a report from City Manager Jeffery Epp.
Abed framed the outsourcing contract with LS&S as a way to shield the library from future cuts because the city would be locked into a contract: “We have a financial crisis that will threaten not only the library but everything else … If we don’t do this today, we are going to be cutting and cutting and cutting and that will put the library at risk. By having this contract, it will spare the library and protect it from any cuts when we face financial crisis.”
Opposition to library outsourcing was marshaled by Councilwoman Olga Diaz, who appealed to her colleagues to see the library as the “heart and soul and core” of the city.
“The library is one of the most important city resources in my mind,” Diaz said. “I don’t think it’s just another operational department. … It is one of the departments that touches the most individuals daily.” She called the effort to outsource library operations “false frugality.”
More than 70 residents spoke for about three hours at the Aug. 23 meeting, nearly all of them opposed to the LS&S contract. Diaz told her colleagues that ignoring their constituents’ opposition will jeopardize prospects for winning voter approval next year to build a new library building in Grape Day Park.
“What I heard from the public is if we move forward with LS&S … our community is not going to trust that we’re going to have their best interests at heart,” Diaz said. “The core constituency that we need to help us promote, support and vote for and pay for that new library vision. That for me is the biggest travesty.”
Diaz was joined in voting against the contract by Councilman Michael Morasco, who said he was torn between the practical arguments for outsourcing and emotional arguments against it.