Book lovers could see Jackson County's libraries open their doors before November after commissioners Wednesday unanimously approved a five-year contract to outsource the operation of all 15 branches.
Maryland-based Library Systems and Services LLC expects to hire 50 to 60 library workers by the end of next week for its initial startup, said Frank Pezzanite, president and chief executive officer for the company, known by the acronym LSSI.
Although the exact number of operating hours for each branch is still being worked out, the libraries in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point and Rogue River could be open for 24 hours a week under the contract. Branches in Gold Hill, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Shady Cove, Talent and White City would be open 16 hours a week. Outlying branches in Applegate, Butte Falls, Prospect and Ruch would be open eight hours. Ashland will be open 40 hours a week after voters in that city approved a September levy to augment hours.
Communities can decide to augment hours of operation at their branch. Under the contract, LSSI will increase hours at a given branch in four-hour increments.
The contract with LSSI encourages volunteers, but won't use volunteers to supplant paid staff.
Summer reading programs and mobile outreach to shut-ins will be part of the service offered by LSSI.
LSSI officials say they want to begin programs for children and young adults as quickly as possible.
"We've been through this before," said Pezzanite, who remembers hiring 101 workers in Riverside County, California, over a weekend. "It's nothing new for us."
Jackson County's libraries will become the second-largest system operated by LSSI, just behind Riverside, which has 32 branches.
The Medford library, at 83,000 square feet, is the largest single facility operated by LSSI, which operates a total of 65 libraries throughout the country.
The company began interviewing former county library employees and others this week. LSSI plans to open the libraries during the first week in November, but Pezzanite said it could be sooner if a quicker way can be found to reestablish Internet connections for all the branches.
"It will be exciting to get the libraries open for the community," said Pezzanite.
He predicted that library patrons should notice very little change in the way the libraries function, apart from reduced hours. "We put a lot of emphasis on public service," he said. "We try to get our people out of the back room to help the public."
The county's contract with LSSI is $3,048,948 for the first year of the agreement, but because the contract starts on Oct. 1 — three months into the budget year — the county will pay 75 percent, or $2,286,711. For fiscal year 2008-09, the LSSI contract is $3,140,416. Another $1.3 million will be spent by the county annually for utilities, facility maintenance, landscaping, telephones, custodial services and the computer system known as SOLIS.
The total amount to run the library system is about half what it was previously.
Pezzanite said salaries will be roughly comparable to what employees received from the county. He said the benefits also will be about the same except the retirement package will not have the Public Employees Retirement System benefits.
He said LSSI offers other benefits the county doesn't provide, such as tuition reimbursement and a bonus program.
Opening the Medford library for only about 24 hours a week isn't optimal, said Pezzanite, who said it would be preferable to have a big library like Medford's or Ashland's open for 60 or more hours a week.
The county's libraries closed April 6 after the loss of a federal timber safety-net funds. Since then the county received a one-year extension of about $23 million that will help pay for the libraries to reopen.
"This has been a fairly difficult process," said Commissioner C.W. Smith. "This has been a fairly painful process. We took a lot of criticism from the community."
Smith said the county will be working with various communities that might want to augment the hours of operation at their local branches. The county anticipates it will be able to fund the libraries for two-and-one-half years to three years.
"Is it perfect?," he said. "No it's not perfect, but it's a good beginning."
Commissioner Dave Gilmour said the county still must figure out a permanent solution to fund the libraries, possibly by creating a special library district.
Kathleen Davis, chair of the Library Advisory Board, said she reviewed the county's proposal with LSSI and applauded the effort in putting it together and reopening libraries.
"Thanks for taking this courageous step," she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.