An Oregon library system considers outsourcing to balance the books

It's come to this: With federal timber dollars pretty much burned up and people concerned with basic issues like law enforcement, a company in Maryland is one option for reopening library branches in rural Oregon.
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This photo is on the <a href="; target="_blank">home page</a> of the Jackson County, Ore., Library System, which is closed due to lack of money. (JCLS)

It's come to this: With federal timber dollars pretty much burned up and people concerned with basic issues like law enforcement, a company in Maryland is one option for reopening library branches in rural Oregon.

There's an idea floating around Southern Oregon that might look like a life preserver to taxpayers but will surely worry most library lovers among them. Jackson County officials are pondering outsourcing library services, now that 15 branches are closed due to lack of money. This would be a drastic move, emblematic of proposals getting tossed around as Jackson County, like other counties throughout the West, consider options that can keep streets safe and services running. This widespread county budget squeeze affects 39 western states and began when the mechanism behind the federal "timber fund" expired last September. (Officially, it's called the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act.) Despite serious overtime put in by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the five-year extension originally proposed was tied to a supplemental appropriations bill for the Iraq war and failed to make it past President Bush's desk. A short-term reprieve did get pushed through Congress last month, giving counties in Oregon and elsewhere money and a few months to come up with Plan B for keeping the porch lights on. Earlier this year, as it became clear to Oregon county officials that they'd be left holding the bag, the flat-wallet predictions were dire. Associated Press environmental writer Jeff Barnard summed it up this way in February: Five counties in heavily forested western Oregon lost a third to two-thirds of their general fund budgets. They are considering a future with only the most dangerous criminals in jail, sheriff's patrol cars dispatched only for life-or-death emergencies, prosecutors ignoring burglaries and drug crimes to concentrate on murders and assaults, and paved roads turning to gravel, and snowbound roads going unplowed. "That would take us back into a time of the not-too-distant past of what was called the Wild, Wild West," Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson told state legislators. The Wild West scenario has been held at bay, but while higher-up politicians are looking for longer-term funding, county officials now are all doing the same dance: reluctant layoffs, covering costs by the rob Peter-pay Paul method, and proposing levies and tax increases on everything from fuel to property to boat permits. Which brings us back to the notion of outsourcing. Library Systems and Services (LSSI) of Germantown, Md., is the best-known company of its kind, managing several formerly public libraries in the West, and has been mentioned as part of the exploration by Jackson County. When you outsource library services, the locals still own the buildings and contents but everything else, including the hiring of local staff, is managed from afar. It might someday be the norm for all kinds of public services. But there's something undeniably different about hiring a business to oversee which books you and your kids can browse, to decide how library Internet access is controlled, and what penalty you'll face when the dog eats a borrowed Harry Potter hardcover edition. LSSI has most often been hired in libraries where, to be blunt, there is nowhere to go but up. A community suffering from years of funding cuts might find the only way to keep a library open is by reducing professional staff and other cost controls a private company exercises, says Jim Scheppke, Oregon's state librarian. But Jackson County, Scheppke emphasizes, is "a wonderful, strong system" known for outreach programs and popular branch services. Poor library management is not the problem there – being caught in a federal-funding trap is. While Jackson County is wise to consider all options for bringing back its libraries, bringing in private management does not compute in such a system, says Scheppke. So, what to do? After the libraries closed, Jackson County tried a library levy in May, but voters were too wigged by the budget disaster to see the books for the shelves, you might say. Public libraries are such a given that even regular users might not think much about where they come from unless the money runs out. And it's true that a county faced with too few sheriff's deputies and road-repair crews might not be placing libraries at the top of the worry list. So all the more credit is due to counties such as Jackson, where officials and concerned citizens are treating the situation as the serious community problem it is, pressing fellow brainstormers from local businesses, unions, and schools for their best ideas on how to support library services. Intelligent problem-solving is happening in the city of Ashland, too, which dealt briskly with short-term worry by raising property taxes one penny to fund a summer reading program in school libraries. The city's also considering a library levy to fund the reopening of the Ashland branch, which could then be run under contract with Jackson County, says Scheppke. (Ashland voters did support the May countywide levy, so a city-proposed tax seems like a slam dunk.) That would buy time for longer-term planning, keep professional staff in place, and probably offer fee-for-service use to residents outside of Ashland. "Just reopening Ashland would change the psychology of this mess," said Scheppke. "Other communities would see it and say, 'Isn't it great that they have library services for kids, for families, for seniors?' People might rethink their opposition to voting for library funding."


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