County rejects Ashland's push for isolation

Negotiations to reopen libraries are complicated enough, so Jackson County commissioners determined Thursday they won't renegotiate a separate existing contract with Ashland to allow it to take over its own branch building in the future.

Commissioner C.W. Smith said renegotiating the Ashland agreement would be a major departure as the county discusses outsourcing the operation of all 15 branches with Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI), a Maryland-based library management company.

LSSI officials say they can operate the libraries for $4.3 million, about half what the county spent before all 15 branches closed April 6 because of budget cuts. The number of operating hours would be cut in half under LSSI's proposal.

Ashland will vote on a levy Sept. 18 that city officials say will help increase hours and wages at its branch.

Smith said Ashland officials want a change in an intergovernmental agreement that will make it easier for the city to take over the library building if they determine it's necessary.

In a memo sent to the county last Friday, Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett wrote, "The city requests that the county agree to a provision to allow the city to request transfer of the library building to the city at the conclusion of the city's two-year levy."

She said that taking over the building is just one of several options being discussed by the city, which has so far supported a countywide library system.

Bennett said, "The City Council recognizes that the city could request the transfer of the building at any time in the future."

Smith said the county's reluctance to renegotiate the Ashland contract doesn't mean it would oppose an effort by that city in the future to operate its own library.

"If Ashland comes to us and says they want to run their own library, we will do it," he said.

The county estimates it could cost Ashland about $2.5 million if it decided to run its library independently.

Smith said the county has 14 other branches that it is also concerned with as it negotiates a contract with LSSI.

He expressed frustration with some of the criticism coming out of Ashland recently that has been directed at the county, particularly County Administrator Danny Jordan.

"The rhetoric coming out of Ashland is disappointing to say the least," he said.

Bennett's memo to the county outlined 20 issues the city has with the LSSI contract.

The city wants LSSI to comply with its living wage law and is willing to pay extra to ensure this is accomplished. The letter also asks the county to make sure it can terminate the contract if a special district is approved by voters in 2008.

Bennett asked the county to negotiate termination clauses at each of the branches in case one community becomes dissatisfied with LSSI's services.

Jordan said many of the issues in the Ashland letter already have been addressed, such as not allowing volunteers to supplant work the county is paying for in the contract.

He said he is negotiating a termination clause in the contract, but the details of it are still being worked out.

Jordan said he was "perturbed" at the insinuation by some Ashland officials recently that he wasn't being timely in his responses. "And, in fact, we have been very responsive to them," he said. "We want them to be successful."

He received the memo from Bennett at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, then after the three-day Labor Day weekend, he said he was able to respond by Tuesday to all issues raised by the city.

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