Privatization Showdown Moves to Osceola County, Florida

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 11:34

After several months of rumors about the future of the Osceola Library System that serves Osceola County, Florida, a series of public hearings that began October 25 are seeking to explain why county officials are considering the outsourcing of library services to Germantown, Maryland–based privatization firm Library Systems and Services, Inc., and how LSSI plans to deliver the services sought. Officials seem to have an uphill battle on their hands to sway their constituents, however: The prospect of privatization has already pitted library supporters and the Florida Library Association against the county commission.

Osceola County leaders are seeking a means of plugging a three-year library deficit amounting to $3 million annually. The shortfall is due to falling property values that have significantly lowered tax revenues, according to the September 2 Orlando Sentinel, and no doubt exacerbated by a series of property-tax rollbacks that have been plaguing the fiscal stability of publicly funded services throughout the state.

As has occurred in many communities faced with library privatization, reaction was mixed when the media began reporting that Osceola County was weighing this option. “I’ve received more emails against it than in favor,” county commissioner John Quiñones said in the Sentinel. Commissioner Frank Attkisson reported receiving feedback favoring the idea, noting “My duty is to deliver the books to citizens free of charge. I don’t have a problem finding the cheapest, fastest, best way to do it.”

County officials initially anticipated an estimated cost savings of $2.5 million per year, only to tell the library board August 31 that LSSI had projected a more modest savings of $800,000 for the first year, totaling $4 million in savings over the length of a five-year contract instead of the county’s expectation of $13.1 million saved overall, Sentinel reported. At the commission’s request, County Manager Don Fisher asked LSSI to find more cost efficiencies; the firm responded with a proposal to cut the six-library system’s operating hours from 72 hours per week to 42 in order to achieve an annual budget reduction of $1.9-million, the newspaper reported September 29.

That news came two weeks after the abrupt dismissal on September 14 of 16 county employees, seven of whom were library workers—including all five branch managers—even as county officials created the new posts of library operations manager, administrative assistant, and library division manager. County Manager Doug Fisher explained that the decision was made based on “very careful and unbiased assessments of services provided versus services needed.” Two days earlier, came two days after the county commission authorized Fisher to negotiate with LSSI. “It appears the decision to outsource has already been made,” a September 16 Osceola News-Gazette editorial asserted, adding, “Someone will have to convince us that’s not the case.”

Florida Library Association President Gloria Colvin did not mince words either. In an open letter September 14, she stated (PDF file) that FLA “believes it is not in the best interest of the residents of Florida for publicly supported libraries to be managed by for-profit organizations,” noting that the county commission took its vote even though “this issue was not specifically on the meeting agenda and the action was not reported in the press.”

Colvin’s statement came about 18 months after FLA successfully defended a proposed state administrative rule against a challenge from LSSI. The for-profit firm had sought to strike an amendment to Florida’s library grant guidelines that made a public library system’s eligibility contingent on it being administered by a full-time librarian employed by the library’s governing body. At the time, LSSI had argued that the since-implemented rule would “substantially interfere with or preclude the management-outsourcing firm from entering into public-private partnerships with local governments.”

An October 13 Orlando Sentinel editorial offered advice to the Osceola County Commission as it ponders whether to sign on with LSSI: “What’s clear is that efficiency shouldn’t rely on closing libraries’ doors. Osceola should insist that private-side smarts deliver savings while preserving access and services. . . . In fact, officials should be looking for enhanced service, not just preserving the status quo. Otherwise, why bother going to the private sector?”

A decision is anticipated by year’s end. Should officials decide to outsource, the arrangement would begin in January.