Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Library Needs Your Help

The local paper had an article today about reduced hours of operation for the library. This is, of course, a direct result of the extremely rushed budget process.

As part of that process, the library had presented a complete financial forecast on November 30, 2007, explaining why an increase of $178,275 to the city levy for the Wapiti Regional Library was necessary. The increase was in recognition of increased personnel costs, partly because last year increased funds were provided to restore hours of service that had gradually been eroded over previous years. Not only had this report been made available to city administration several weeks in advance of the budget process, but I walked council through the forecast during the budget marathon session, explaining the implications of not granting this increase. I also explained that this was in the Wapiti Regional Library budget, because that's where the payroll for JM Cuelenaere is done. The actual impact will be on JMC.

I haven't yet seen the minutes of that budget committee meeting, but I'll be interested to see who moved that this increase not be granted (in the forty-five minutes after I left the meeting before they shut things down).

In any event, at the council meeting two days after the marathon, all we were given was a budget summary to vote on - no committee minutes, no details. And the explanation of why the increase was now slightly smaller - "just mathematics". Actually it's just arithmetic - if you subtract something, the total will be smaller.

Since I refused to agree to having the necessary three votes at one meeting, the budget did not pass that night. The next day, going through the detailed budget, I was shocked to see that the proposed increased levy (amounting to $6 per capita) was not included. The day after, when I saw another councillor (who is also on the library board), he was quite surprised when I told him of the potential impact on the library, and said that he wasn't sure how that had happened. He was also concerned because necessary money for street sweeping had also been left out of the budget. The next thing to surprise me was that a special council meeting was called for the following week to have third reading of the budget, which didn't leave much time to figure a way through this mess.

Assured by that same councillor that things could be worked out, I chose to trust my fellow members of council to do the right thing, and reconsider the motion to approve the budget until these issues had been resolved. My mistake. The budget passed, although people assured me that something could be figured out. Since then there have been two meetings (one of which I was invited to, and attended) with the mayor and the city manager, another councillor member of the library board, and the chief librarian, in which the focus was on how the library could cut costs. There's really only one way, which is to reduce the hours that were just restored last year.

I was hopeful that some of the additional funds that the province announced last week could be directed toward the library, but the soccer centre promo piece in Friday's paper, announcing a donation by another city councillor, suggests that this money is going to be put toward the soccer centre project, although I'm not sure how that decision could be made without being discussed at a council meeting, according to The Cities Act.

One of the reasons that I feel so strongly about this is that the library is one of the treasures of Prince Albert, truly accessible to all, and located centrally. It provides facilities, entertainment, and opportunities that are available to all citizens, of every age, at no cost. Staff there believe passionately in what they do, are unfailingly helpful and courteous, and are always looking at ways of improving service, and improving the literacy level of Prince Albert.

Unlike some agencies which requested (and were granted) funds without providing any financial details, the library staff and the board had done their homework, and well ahead of time. Despite that hard work, we on the board are now faced with the more difficult task of figuring out what hours to cut, and what staff will be affected.

What can you do to help? Call the mayor. Call your councillor. Call the councillors who are on the library board (Councillors Gervais, Williams, Zurakowski, and me), and suggest that part of whatever additional funds that the province is providing be directed to correct this mistake. As I said, Section 101 of The Cities Act states that council (as a whole) is responsible for directing funds, and we have yet to decide how this additional money will be allocated. Perhaps if enough of council can be persuaded that this is the way to fix the problem, we can succeed.

"My two favourite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything." - Peter Golkin

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