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Library funding sparks council chamber debate

Posted on September 11, 2019 by Taber Times

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times

With the Taber Public Library requesting a six-figure increase to their annual allocation from the Town of Taber in the 2020 budget, several councillors have expressed strong reservations about the organization’s direction and the programming that is being offered to the public.

The library’s approved amount in the town’s 2020 budget is $229,463, and the proposed amount is $354,875.20, for an increase of $125,412.20. In 2021 the library is seeking a town allocation of $365,250.15, and $372,958.94 in 2022.

“In 2015, we got rid of membership fees because it is seen as a barrier to access, and since doing that, our membership has grown,” said library manager Heather Martin-Detka at town council’s Sept. 3 special meeting. “So that shows that membership fees were indeed a barrier to access…we’ve had growth of about 22 per cent since doing away with those.”

In 2020, the library is projecting total revenues of $435,119.20, $445,888.09 in 2021, and $454,003.94 in 2022. Expenses match revenues in each year.

According to the library’s 2018 annual report, 2,181 people have a library card, and 10,296 items were lent out to libraries outside the system, as well as bringing in 13,156 items upon patron request. In 2017, over 68,000 items were circulated in conjunction with 58,155 in-person visits, and 34,588 website visits. There were 2,156 car-holding members, which has more than doubled since 2014.

“We had 63,984 visitors in 2018, so that comes to about 5,332 visitors each month, so that’s just people coming in the door,” said Martin-Detka.

Current library board members include Cindy Varga (chair), Erica Hughes (vice chair), Darlene Mitchell (treasurer), Marilyn Kambeitz (secretary), Jolie Sturm, Sharon Holtman, Coun. Carly Firth (Town of Taber) and Coun. Tamara Miyanaga (M.D. of Taber). The library is staffed and operated by eight employees and 25 volunteers, and is open approximately 312 days per year.

“According to our 2018 statistics, we are worth $1.4 million to this community, and this is figured out by plugging in our 2018 stats to the American Library Association’s library value app,” said Martin-Detka.

Fears have arisen with regard to provincial library funding and the annual allocation to public libraries after the UCP announced a review and a freeze on 50 per cent of library funding in August. In 2019, this funding originally amounted to $46,509, but the library is only projecting $23,254 coming from the province in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

“Currently, we have only received 50 per cent of our provincial operating grant, with the other 50 per cent currently under review,” said Martin-Detka. “We do not know what that decision will be until the province puts out their budget. So at this point in time we have only included what we have currently received in our budget.”

The Municipal District of Taber also contributes funds to the library’s budget, but this makes up a significantly smaller percentage of the library’s overall funding. In 2018, the M.D. contributed $12,050, followed by $11,000 in 2019, $11,830 in 2020, and $12,223.94 in 2021.

“Just off of your budget here, from 2018 to 2022, you’ve got roughly a 50 per cent increase there in requisitioned funds,” said Coun. Joe Strojwas. “You stated you’ve got a 22 per cent increase in (memberships) because you don’t charge fees anymore. And then I look at the M.D. of Taber grant, and they haven’t went up to the same degree. Can you give us an explanation?”

“We approached them in April to request an increase,” replied Martin-Detka. “Again, they’ve got six libraries they need to support in the M.D. So we did ask them for an increase.”

“So you were turned down by the M.D., is that what you’re saying?” said Strojwas.

“They’re looking at it for their 2020 budget,” said Martin-Detka.

Strojwas was fixated on the M.D.’s annual contributions to the library.

“If you look at the portion of percentage shares, it’s sadly out of whack when you consider a 22 per cent increase in fines and an increase in the budget, the M.D. is significantly less than that. Those figures don’t sit totally comfortably with me.”

Coun. Mark Garner was critical of what he viewed as needless duplication between the recreational offerings of the town and the library.

“I guess I have a question in my mind, as the Town of Taber are we duplicating a service here? When I read your vision statement, ‘to provide information, education, recreational and cultural activities.’ We as the Town of Taber just instituted an ACE (Emily Hembrough – Arts, Culture and Events) director — which is a full-time position — and so I’m wondering if that’s not a duplication. I’m sure that maybe there’s some overall there. I’m wondering if we could take some of that away from you and give it to that person. That would maybe free up some funding for you, because I don’t see the need to run two recreational programs for the town. You should do it or we should do it.”

Martin-Detka pointed out the library’s offerings in this area are in alignment with a needs assessment of users completed in 2018.

“When we did our needs assessment in 2018, we found that there was a great need for affordable recreation opportunities. That there was no where offering low cost, no cost recreational opportunities. We’ve recently partnered with local fitness instructors to provide those, because we found there was a need for that. So at this point in time, if that was something the town was going to be looking at, we would reflect upon what sort of programs we’re offering, but we’ve heard from many of our patrons through surveys — both in person and online — that’s the sort of thing they were looking for, so that’s why we filled in that recreational need.”

This explanation appeared to make little impression on Garner.

“I think we need to look at that, in my mind. We would be foolish to go forward having two competing programs.”

Coun. Garth Bekkering inquired how the library’s $39.68 per capita compared with other communities in Alberta.

“That is above average for our community size, as well as above the provincial average,” said Martin-Detka, while pointing out the average for like-sized communities is $33.27, and the provincial average is $38.91 per capita.

Strojwas was unwilling to support an annual increase of over $125,000 to the town’s library allocation, while also critical of the organization’s recreational programming.

“That’s a huge increase. At this point I can’t support that kind of an increase on a go-forward basis. I think this budget needs to be re-looked at by the library. I’m just not comfortable with that kind of an increase. There’s certain things in your mission statement that just don’t sit well with me, like recreational. I agree with Councillor Garner here — I think libraries are educational and reading, I’m not quite sure where the recreational comes in. I can’t go forward with this.”

Coun. Jack Brewin agreed with this line of analysis.

“This is $125,000 this year forever. It’s not just a one-time deal, so we’re increasing our budget every year from here on out by $125,000 plus — because the needs are going to go up again of course. I think we need to have a really hard look at this and do some pencil sharpening to get this money down, because I have a hard time increasing that by $125,000.”

Previous to 2020, the library has been drawing down its reserves in anticipation of requesting a significant increase from the town. In 2018, the library utilized $31,304.13 in reserves to supplement its budget, and in 2019 the board allocated $41,842.58 in reserves. In 2020 and subsequent years, the library does not plan to utilize a transfer from reserves, which is part of the explanation behind the request for additional funds from the town.

“There’s no doubt that I agree with Councillor Strojwas and Brewin, and Councillor Garner,” said Bekkering. “That’s a huge increase, there’s no doubt about that. But I guess the fact that you people have budgeted over the last couple of years with a reserve — that you shouldn’t have done probably, but you did — reflects this in the huge increase. Had you had a regular budget with no reserve taken out, you wouldn’t have seen this large increase.”

The library delegation suggested the decision with regard to reserves was considered the fiscally responsible move, and that they wouldn’t have considered it fair to approach the town with the large annual increase while still retaining a six-figure war chest in reserves.

“That was very commendable to go that route,” said Mayor Andrew Prokop.

That sentiment was echoed by Coun. Carly Firth, who represents the town on the library board.

“The library board did a fiscally responsible thing by spending those reserves. I don’t disagree — that’s a big number — however they did the fiscally responsible thing, and I wonder if now we’re not punishing them for doing that. They could have gone forward and asked for an increase every single year like most organizations that we fund. They didn’t. And now that is a big number we’re looking at, and I just think we need to take that into consideration when we’re making these decisions.”

Garner was unshaken in his belief that the town and library are duplicating recreational offerings in the community.

“I agree somewhat with what you say, Councillor Firth, but at the end of the day for me there’s still duplication. We have a full time recreation department, they’re fully staffed, we have an excellent facility here that we can use at our disposal, and now we’re trying to duplicate that in a smaller form over there? I think we need to revisit the mission statement here and put all of our eggs in one basket.”

“With respect, when is the last time you visited the library to see what they offer?” questioned Firth.

“Several years ago,” replied Garner. “But I understand recreation, and I understand cultural events in this town really well.”

Firth suggested the library’s recreational programming is complementary to the town’s offerings.

“Right. And I’m not telling you that you’re wrong. But I think that the recreational opportunities that the library affords, and the ones that the Town of Taber affords, are quite different. Varying recreational needs for everybody, that’s life, not everybody wants to do the same thing for fun. But what the library offers is low cost or no cost opportunities for families, whereas the Town of Taber of course needs to recoup some of our costs. We don’t offer a lot of low or no cost alternatives, for good reason — it costs money to run a pool, it costs money to run an arena. My point is I don’t see a lot of overlap between what the library offers and what the Town of Taber offers. I think they are complementary to each other.”

Brewin attacked the provincial education system for not focusing enough on literacy and relying on libraries to pick up the slack.

“I agree somewhat with Councillor Firth, I think it is a whole different thing here, doing things for kids to help them to read better and stuff like that…I have no problem with that. I think if we see any duplication at all it’s going to be with our education system. Why are we so busy at the library teaching kids how to read? What’s happened? Why are we relying on our library?”

Prokop didn’t entirely agree with this statement.

“I don’t know that’s it relying, but it’s more of an enhancement, I should think.”

Following debate, council voted unanimously to refer the Taber Public Library’s request for additional funding to the Sept. 11 joint council meeting between the M.D. of Taber and Town of Taber councils for additional discussion. Today’s meeting is at 6 p.m. at Luigi’s Restaurant.

The town’s library funding item has been included for closed session discussion between the two councils and will not be public. The town’s agenda for the meeting cites Sec. 24 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act as justification for taking the item in camera, to prevent “disclosure of advice from officials that could reasonably be expected to reveal plans, policies or projects of a public body.”

The Taber Public Library was established in November 1946 in the upper floor of the fire hall. In 1963, a new library was opened on 49th Avenue, which is currently the home of Kid Zone. In June 2007, the library moved into its current facility on 50th Avenue. The library became a member of the Chinook Arch Regional Library System in 1992.

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