Public library advocates are questioning a Baltimore County plan to transfer library information-technology services to the county government's IT office, saying it could set a precedent that threatens the library's autonomy.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's budget includes the transfer of 28 positions in the Baltimore County Public Library system to the county's Office of Information Technology starting July 1. A County Council vote on the budget is scheduled for Thursday.
Administration officials say the move is part of a long-term strategy to make government more efficient. The technology office will assume control of the library's IT operations and related budgets, and no jobs will be cut, officials said.
"We think down the road, you're going to see better service, more support for libraries and a cost savings for the county taxpayers," said Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff.
But the plan has drawn the attention of library advocates around Maryland.
"What a lot of libraries within the state are worried about is that it appears that this was not done in due process," said Darrell Batson, director of Frederick County Public Libraries and board president for the Maryland Association of Public Library Administrators. "We in no way wish to interfere with another library system's operations. Our concern is precedent."
Sharon Knecht, president of the Baltimore County Board of Library Trustees, said the county should have gotten approval of the board before transferring the positions, especially since the board is independent of county government. Although the libraries get most of their funding from the county, the trustee board has authority to set policy.
"We are not a department of the county," Knecht said. "The board was not informed about this move until very late in the budget process."
The positions being moved "are clearly library positions," she said, with some requiring a master's degree in library science as well as four to five years of library experience.
County library director Jim Fish, who is retiring in June, said the positions include information specialists, graphic artists, technicians and staff members responsible for operating the customer service and circulation system.
Fish said the library is "all in favor of saving money," but he said county officials haven't explained how transferring the positions would save money overall.
Personnel costs — salaries of about $1.5 million, according to the county auditor — would be transferred from the library system to the IT office. Rob Stradling, head of that office, said the overall streamlining could save the library $400,000 a year through sharing contracts and eliminating redundancies, such as those in payroll and help desk systems. That money could then be used for other expenses, he said.
Many county departments once had their own IT departments, but starting seven years ago with the Police Department, the county began to centralize them, he said. Today, all operations are centralized.
Stradling acknowledged library officials might not have felt fully informed about the move.
"Communication was probably not as good as it should've been," said Stradling, adding that he plans to improve that.