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Library district concerns can be addressed

Jackson County Library District officials are expressing concern about the management company that operates the district's 15 libraries, questioning how much it pays employees and whether a private equity firm that bought the company last year is more interested in profits than in providing quality service. It appears the district can afford to raise workers' pay if that's what board members want, and getting out of the contract is only four years away.

When Jackson County shuttered the libraries in 2007 and then reopened them after a public outcry, it hired Library Systems and Services to operate the libraries for less than the county was spending to run them with county employees. When voters approved the formation of the independent library district in 2014, the new district signed its own contract with LSSI.

Last year, LSSI was purchased by Argosy Private Equity, and is now known as LS&S. The company's president, Paul Colangelo, says a private equity firm also owned LSSI, so that is not a new development. He also says library usage has increased dramatically since 2007, with the number of library cardholders more than doubling.

LS&S won't say how much it pays workers, although Colangelo said some part-timers are paid the state minimum wage of $9.25 an hour. Colangelo also wouldn't divulge its profit margins.

Last year, library district board members said it would be easy to get out of the contract with what was then LSSI, but that they were happy with the service the company was providing. Now, they say ending the contract would be difficult.

The contract expires in 2020. That's only four years away. In the meantime, Colangelo says it would be a simple matter to modify the contract to increase employees' pay if that's what the board wants to do.

The district's budget committee is recommending a $15.7 million budget for next year, which includes a $5 million ending fund balance. That's a very healthy balance, especially considering the contract with LS&S is only about $5 million. Other budget expenses include materials, building and grounds maintenance, administrative and accounting services provided by the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, telephone and Internet service and security.

The committee proposes keeping the district's tax rate at 52 cents per $1,000 assessed value — a wise move considering the heat the district took when it initially suggested it might levy the maximum 60 cents approved by voters. The lesser amount appears to be sufficient, given the ending fund balance.

Hours of service at the district's 15 branches continue to exceed those provided by the county. That should continue.

If pay levels are a concern, the district can afford to adjust them. In 2020, if board members want to look for another company or take over the operation themselves, they can do that, too — keeping in mind that taxpayers will expect library services to continue to be delivered as efficiently as possible.