Already, some towns across Massachusetts are charging for school sports, cutting school bus service, and imploring voters to raise property taxes. But now, in an unprecedented move in the state, two communities are considering proposals to privatize their libraries.
The separate privatization proposals in Tewksbury and Dartmouth are still in the early stages, but the idea is nonetheless stunning advocates in a state where towns often put the word free in the name of their library.
The general approach would be to turn over the library's day-to-day operations to private companies. The idea, which would need approval by the towns in each case, could also put the libraries at risk of losing state funding.
Celeste Bruno - a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which certifies public libraries - said Tewksbury and Dartmouth would be the first communities in Massachusetts to privatize their libraries. She said the library commissioners would oppose any such move.
"There is a huge difference between a private, for-profit company and a library which essentially belongs to the community and answers to every resident in the Commonwealth," Bruno said.
Privatized libraries are not unheard of in other states. A Maryland-based company, Library Systems and Services LLC, called LSSI, runs 65 library branches in four states: Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and California, according to Dean McCausland, LSSI president.
In a telephone interview, he said LSSI relies on taxes and grants, but not fees, to run the libraries and turn a profit for the company. LSSI generally does not hire unionized employees, helping it to save on benefits packages.
Both Tewksbury, northwest of Boston, and Dartmouth, in the southeastern part of the state, have been struggling to keep up with the rising costs of municipal government while keeping taxes relatively low. Both towns are facing possible property tax overrides.
In Tewksbury, officials have told voters they will face deep municipal budget cuts this year unless they pass a series of tax overrides, including one for about $5.3 million. A date for the override has not been set, said Town Manager David Cressman.
Budget-balancing proposals include imposing user fees to fund all high school athletics, senior center services, and trash collection, as well as library privatization.
"They're all lousy ideas, but so is going broke," said Jay Kelley, chairman of Tewksbury's Financial Planning Task Force.
Kelley said task force members unanimously approved investigating library privatization after a resident suggested the idea.
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Dartmouth is also investigating whether to draw up a contract with LSSI, said Denise Medeiros, the town's library director.
Medeiros said that a subcommittee of the town's Finance Committee is exploring privatization of other services as well, including the Department of Public Works.
Medeiros said she does not see privatization as an answer to the town's budget problems, because the library would still rely on local tax dollars to operate.
Finances have been so shaky that the town has already closed one of its three library branches permanently and another branch temporarily, Medeiros said.
On April 1, the town's voters will consider six tax override questions.
One of those measures, raising $250,000, would help cover the library budget, which is $878,196 this year.
Robert Ferrari of Tewksbury said he believes that private companies are held to stricter standards.
"I'm pro-privatizing as much of government as possible," said Ferrari, who runs a local blog about issues in Tewksbury.
"The government cannot run anything that a business couldn't do better."
At the two-story brick library, built in 1999, patrons voiced their concern about privatization.
Shannon O'Neil, 19, on spring break from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said she has no Internet access at her home in Tewksbury and needed the library to study for a biology course. Said O'Neil: "The library's public, so everyone can use it."
Connie Paige can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The Boston Globe