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Library system faces a major challenge

As the Jackson County Library District prepares to end its contract with the Maryland company that operates its 15 branches, the district appears to be doing things right. District board members need to keep the focus on what best serves their customers: the public who elected them.

After years of operating as part of county government, the library system saw its tax levy absorbed into the county’s general fund, and the libraries were closed in 2007 amid a budget crisis. The county reopened the libraries after six months, but contracted with an outside company to operate the system with reduced hours. County officials said the contractor, then known as LSSI, could do the job more efficiently than the existing staff of county employees.

In 2014, voters created the Jackson County Library District and approved a tax levy of up to 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to fund the system. The district has collected only 52 cents per $1,000, and board members should make sure they keep that commitment to taxpayers.

The newly elected board decided to sign its own contract with the company, now known as Library Systems and Services of Rockville, Maryland. That contract expires at the end of June 2020, and the district notified Library Systems this month that the contract will not be renewed.

The other change happening in 2020 is that the district will assume ownership and full responsibility for the library buildings, now owned by the county, which built them using money from a bond levy approved by voters in 2000. That’s a major change for the district.

The primary motivation for ending the operating contract seems to be a desire for local control. Since the contract was signed, board members have expressed concern that the salaries paid by Library Systems were lower than they should be. Library staff are employees of the contractor, not the district.

The district is investing money in a capital improvement project, including replacing heating and air conditioning systems in some of the buildings, in preparation for taking ownership. That’s prudent. So is the decision to put off expanding operating hours until 2020.

Returning local control means more than just paying employees. All the administrative functions now handled by Library Systems, such as human resources and technical support, will become the district’s responsibility. All of that costs money, and it’s those kinds of expenses that Library Systems was able to provide at lower cost because it could spread them over the multiple library systems it operates.

It’s possible some of those functions could still be contracted out, but whatever happens, the district needs to be transparent about how it is using the tax dollars it collects. Local control is a worthwhile goal, but not if it means a big increase in expenses. The challenge is to create a local operation with expanded hours but without increasing tax collections.