Community speaks out in support of Hancock County Library System
By Cassandra Favre, Staff Writer
Feb 14, 2017, 17:38
Therese Springer, a supporter of the Hancock County Library System, on Monday signed her name to the sign-in sheet. Photo by Cassandra Favre
The Hancock County Board of Supervisors board room on Monday was blanketed in a sea of blue shirts as supporters of the Hancock County Library System made their way into the room to voice their opinions about the possible privatization of the library system.
Board of Supervisors President Blaine LaFontaine opened the meeting with a discussion of the city/county interlocal agreement. The county entered into that agreement with the cities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland in 1991.
According to the agreement, the county can levy up to four mils for the library and the cities can each levy up to three. Waveland is the only city that dedicates three mills, LaFontaine said. Bay St. Louis dedicates about 2.65 mills and the county currently levies 2.6, he said.
LaFontaine said one of the things the board would like to discuss or see amended in the interlocal agreement relates to the library system employees and library board group insurance plan. He said the board would like to see a potential partnership where the library employees are brought under the county's insurance plan.
"This is something we are actually looking to consider with Bay St. Louis, Diamondhead and Waveland," LaFontaine said. "Right now, all these entities operate and have contracts with different premiums and different insurance plans. We believe there may be savings if we have a consolidated plan."
Jennifer Stephenson, president of the Mississippi Library Commission, told the board that the out-of-pocket costs for each library employee is $18 to $38 per month.
"Public library employees in the state of Mississippi who work 20 hours or more are entitled to coverage under the state employees and school benefits and they're also entitled to the Public Employment Retirement benefits. The expenses paid by the library are reimbursed through a health and life insurance grant program through the state legislature. It costs the county nothing for these employees to be covered."
The second item LaFontaine said the board would discuss amending in the interlocal agreement is the appointment structure to the library's board of trustees. Waveland currently appoints one member, Bay St. Louis appoints two and the board of supervisors appoints two to the five-member board, he said. Diamondhead doesn't have a member because the city doesn't levy a millage, LaFontaine said.
The board would like to see if it could have one of Bay St. Louis' appointments, LaFontaine said.
"We believe if we account for 60 percent of the funding, we should have majority members on that board from the county board of supervisors," he said.
The second item the board discussed was the latest proposal - dated Feb. 9 - from Library Systems and Services. Representatives from the company presented their initial proposal to the Hancock County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 17.
According to the proposal, LS&S would maintain the current number of open hours and add Sunday hours; maintain and enhance story time and early literacy programs, maintain and enhance adult and teen programs; enhance books and materials collections; expand existing special programs; implement an integrated library system; ensure efficient collection control; streamline cataloging and processing and real-time collection analytics; make it possible to access key reports anytime; lower IT costs; and reduce administrative tasks for the county.
According to the proposal, LS&S said it could save the county $429,859 annually and $2.1 million over a five-year contract period.
Laurie Johnson asked the board if the LS&S contract also included the costs to the county regarding insurance on the buildings and telecommunication costs.
LaFontaine said that information was not included in the proposal.
Susan Cassagne, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission, said Mississippi's library laws are "very, very" specific with regards to the library and its board.
"I'm not certain that should this go through, the library system would be meeting qualifications," she said. "Between state and federal aid last year, the library system has gotten back $200,000."
That is from reimbursements and grants written by library staff, Cassagne said. The library is also eligible for reimbursements for telecommunications costs, she said.
"I'm just concerned, under another arrangement, they would not meet the definition of a public library system under the state's statute," Cassagne said. "And those things would then be going away."
LaFontaine read more from LS&S' proposal, which says that savings would be generated from personnel, and other direct and material costs.
Hancock County Library System Executive Director Courtney Thomas said that "basically, the entire cost savings for this company would be on the head of our staff, all of it."
LaFontaine then went on to discuss data compiled by the board, based on information received from the Mississippi Library Commission.
The data from 2015 is the latest available information on the MLC's website, LaFontaine said.
Representatives from Hancock County Library's System, Lamar County's Library System and Harrison County's Library's System pointed out to the board that the numbers used for the data compilation were not current.
Cassange said library personnel are required to submit their statistics to MLC six months after the end of the library's fiscal year.
The statistics for 2016 are expected to be out by June or July, she said.
Thomas said the library reports "everything we do," including services, circulation, funding and visitors.
The board compared data from other library systems throughout the state, including Lamar, Harrison, Madison, Pearl River, and Oktibbhea counties.
LaFontaine said the board estimates - based on the data compiled - the per-capita costs per resident in Hancock County to be about $39.50.
LaFontaine said they looked at circulation numbers and usage. He said the board is looking for a level of correlation between the amount of funding and the amount that county residents use the library.
He said Hancock County's per-capita circulation for 2015 was 3.2.
Thomas suggested LaFontaine explore more tabs on the MLC's website.
"From 2015, per-capita visits from Hancock County was 4.81," she said. "Per capita visits from Lamar County was 3.49 and for Harrison County was 2.66. Seventy-eight percent of Hancock County residents are registered users of our library. Lamar County is 32 percent and Harrison County is 44 percent. Your people are using your library. There's not a day that does not have a program. We are more than just checking books in and out. We are a community resource and the people are using your library."
LaFontaine asked Thomas about the implementation of a $60,000 automated system.
Thomas said the library installed self-checkouts in three branches. She said there was not enough usage to justify the costs such as software upgrades.
"They were very expensive ornaments," she said. "They come there and their library family is their library family. They don't want to go to that impersonal machine, they go to our staff. Our people did not like it, so why would you force them to use it?"
LaFontaine said the "best use of taxpayer funds would be, when I implement something, I try to make it to where people will use that. But it sounds to me, you wasted that opportunity."
When it was implemented, LaFontaine said, Thomas still gave customers another option.
Thomas said there was no reason to have the automated system there if no one was using it, so she put the $60,000 into the book budget.
Cassagne said the Hancock County Library System has the highest level of service and programs and the board is comparing the system with library systems that aren't funded as well, who "do less because they have less."
Thomas said, that during her research, she has found places where LS&S' management worked.
"The places where it worked were those places that had broken library systems that weren't functioning," she said. "You have four new buildings and one that was renovated. You have excellent services."
Thomas said minus a book mobile, there was not one service proposed by LS&S that the Hancock County Library System does not already have.
During public forum, several concerned citizens spoke out in opposition to privatization.
Stephenson read a letter in support and referenced the Hancock County Library System's swift return to services after the devastating circumstances of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. It destroyed two of the system's branches, she said. Prior to that date, the Hancock County Library System had received numerous national awards, she said.
"But the Kiln Library branch opened 12 days later," she said. "The Bay St. Louis branch opened a month after that to return vital services to their community. In the days and months following Katrina's destruction, many residents of Hancock County turned to their public libraries to find information about receiving aid from MEMA, FEMA, the Red Cross and other services and organizations. Over a decade later, the Hancock County Library System has been restored, now with five branches, and they continue to win awards such as being designated a Star Library by the Mississippi Library Commission. The library system has not only recovered from devastation but they have prospered. Trying to privatize these public libraries of the Hancock County Library System would be another disaster."
Laurie Johnson said she understands the board's need to cut costs and make difficult decisions.
"But as a taxpayer in this county and the city of Bay St. Louis, I really want my tax dollars to stay in my community," she said. "I really want Mississippi to be a beacon of wonderful services, education and opportunities. My biggest issue is doing the research."
Johnson said she believed that the California libraries did benefit from LS&S's services, but they were about to go bankrupt before the transition.
"That's not where we are," she said. "I can't speak for anybody else in the room, I would be willing to pay more money in my taxes every year to keep what we have now than to risk selling those services out to that company."
Ken Short, a Pearlington resident and active library user, said the children in his community utilize the library's computers to complete their homework
"This library system should stay the way it is," he said. "We like it, it's superior. I see people using this library system here. This is not a numbers problem like you think it is, it's a people problem and the people here want it to stay strong."
When LaFontaine concluded the workshop, he said the board would discuss the matter and give the local city officials an opportunity to discuss it as well.
He said the next meeting about about the library would be advertised.
View a detailed list of the Mississippi Library Commission's statistics at www.mlc.lib.ms.us/ms-libraries/library-development/statistics/.