Contract dispute could leave 400K county residents with no library access

Bexar county's BiblioTech to blame

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County residents living outside of the San Antonio city limits could lose their library privileges if the county and city can't come to an agreement on a new contract.

For nearly 80 years the city and county have partnered to provide library services to everyone in Bexar County but that agreement is on shaky ground thanks in part to Bexar county's BiblioTech.

When it opened last year BiblioTech became the nation's first all-digital library. Instead of checking out books, patrons simply download them online.

It was hailed as the library of the future. Now it's at the center of contract dispute and has become a topic of debate in the race for county judge.

At a recent debate County Judge Nelson Wolff said BiblioTech allows the county to provided library services in a more cost effective-manner.

"We're expanding the opportunity for people to read, breaking down the barriers to reading, We brought them technology," Wolff said. "We've done that in a way that is cost- effective and we still give the library system $3.7 million for their huge system, which is a great system, but we're looking at trying to provide services in the county at a fraction of the cost. We're taking the library to the people where they don't have to come to us."

Republican candidate Carlton Soules said at the same debate that the county is simply duplicating existing services.

"They have those same resources and anybody in the county can go to the San Antonio Public Library and they can get a library card and they can go online and they can check out books," Soules said. "We cannot afford to go down a path where we have two systems competing with one another. We need to be focused on working together and creating one world-class library that can be enjoyed by everybody in the county."

Library director Ramiro Salazar said the city and county have had an agreement in place since 1936 to share the costs of library services.

Those contracts used to be for five years but the past three years the county has only agreed to extend the deal for one year at a time.

So far the two sides have failed to reach an agreement for 2015.

"We've been negotiating with the county to extend the interlocal agreement," Salazar said. "The city's position is that we have been subsidizing this service to county residents who live outside the city of San Antonio. The county's position is that they're paying too much for that service."

Under the current agreement the city shells out $35 million a year while the county chips in $3.78 million to provide access to roughly 400,000 county residents. The county wants to knock off $300,000 per year for four years starting in 2016, that adds up to a reduction of $1.2 million but could be more if the county adds more BiblioTech locations. If they don't reach a deal county residents could lose access and the library would have to make cuts.

"Reduction of service hours, perhaps closing one or two or three library branches, reducing the hours at the central library. So obviously this is a critical situation," Salazar said. "If we don't come to some agreement, what's going to happen is those 400,000 individuals will no longer enjoy the same privileges they enjoy now."

Salazar said the Library Board took action at its monthly meeting in August to establish a joint task force to recommend a county wide library service model with sustainable funding. If that task force isn't formed by Oct. 31 or its recommendations are not accepted by March 31, 2015, the board will recommend to the city council to terminate its agreement with Bexar County.

Salazar is hopeful the two sides can find a compromise.

"We're eager to talk and discuss ways to collaborate as joint partners but we haven't really found a resolution at this point," Salazar said. "Obviously we want to plan and project for the future, that's why we're eager to sit down with the county and start the negotiations and really get to some resolution to this issue."

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