Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Library board seeks more money for same service

St. Mary’s council asks provincial government to ‘investigate and intervene’

  • March 17 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

ST. MARY’S – The Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s is calling on the province to “investigate” Eastern Counties Regional Library’s (ECRL) recent request that the municipality pay $10,000 more per year for the same level of service, effective April 6.

The complaint against ECRL, relating to its branch operations in Sherbrooke, was sent to Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Suzanne Lohnes-Croft following an emergency meeting of council March 10.

The Municipality of the District of Guysborough has sent a similar letter pertaining to local library services there to the minister, CAO Barry Carroll told The Journal March 14.

The full text of the St. Mary’s complaint, which was read into the public record and signed by Warden Greg Wier, states:

“On Monday, March 8, 2021, St. Mary’s municipal council received a letter from the Eastern Counties Regional Library Board notifying the municipality that service hours for the Sherbrooke Library would be reduced from 25 hours per week, to 15 hours per week, a 40 per cent reduction if municipal council does not pay an additional $10,531 [on top of the current $16,927] per fiscal year. This is a substantial increase in requested funds to a small, rural community and would force municipal council to raise tax rates to provide services at the current level.

“The Sherbrooke Library, which is our only library, serves as an incredibly important part of the well-being of our residents, offering vital access to information, culture, learning, and social interactions. Over the past several years, municipal councils have shown dedication to our local library and completed multiple physical upgrades to the building in excess of $30,000 to increase efficiency, user access, and overall enjoyment for residents.

“The largest disappointment Council has in addition to the blunt request for additional funds or major cuts in service is that the board and their administration have not presented any options to the participating municipalities to accommodate any budgetary shortfall within the ERCL to maintain the current service levels. Rather, the ERCL received additional funding from the province of $225,000 and built the whole increase into head office operations with no allocation of those funds to go to staffing at the local branches whatsoever.

“Council and municipal administration have been monitoring and requesting information from the chief librarian over the course of the last year regarding this issue and a possible solution. No viable solutions have been offered from the ERCL. Rather, Council received an ultimatum to the potential for reduction of service hours if additional funds were not immediately approved.”

The complaint, which was also copied to Guysborough-Eastern Shore-Tracadie MLA Lloyd Hines, concludes:

“Madam Minister, on behalf of council, I ask for you to investigate and intervene on this matter in order to ensure that the province’s subsidized and equitable model of providing library services to rural areas is held in place and that the hours of our service at the Sherbrooke library be restored.”

After the Journal shared the full text of the complaint with the ECRL’s CEO and Chief Librarian Laura Emery and its Board Chair Shirley McNamara, the organization initially declined to comment. On Monday afternoon (March 15), however, ECRL issued the following statement:

“Eastern Counties Regional Library is responsible for treating all our municipal funding partners equitably, as they represent the taxpayers who support public libraries. A review by the ECRL Board of the new provincial library funding formula highlighted that some Municipal funders are currently receiving a level of library service that costs significantly more than their financial contribution. Providing these service levels has required that a portion of the cost be covered by the financial contributions of other Municipal partners, who therefore receive significantly less library service than their population, and corresponding funding, merits.”

The statement continues: “A realignment of funds is necessary to ensure that all Municipal partners are benefiting from their provincially mandated contributions…This means that library branch service levels will be aligned with municipal funding contributions beginning April 2021. Frontline services will receive increased support in the Counties of Inverness and Richmond, and they will remain at the current level in the Mulgrave/Port Hawkesbury area. In the District of Guysborough and District of St. Mary’s, frontline service will correspond to the level that can be supported by the municipalities’ financial contributions.”

At St. Mary’s regular council meeting on March 8, District 7 Councillor Everett Baker voluntarily tendered his resignation as the district’s representative on the library’s board. District 1 Councillor Courtney Mailman agreed to assume the post in his stead.

The municipality’s Director of Finance Marian Fraser told council that to sustain the current level of service, the cost will rise by about $10,531 to $27,458 a year, starting in April, adding: “They [ECRL] also received an extra $225,000 from the province [which goes] into the collections, expenses for headquarters [in Mulgrave].”

She added: “All of the expenses related to staff, all of [those] hours, come from the municipal budget. We also pay about $12-13,000 a year to maintain the [library] building [in Sherbrooke].”

In an email to The Journal earlier this month, ECRL CEO Emery said, “The Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s annual contribution is put toward the annual fixed staffing costs for the Sherbrooke Branch Library. There is one Library Assistant based at the Sherbrooke Branch Library.”

In an interview following the emergency meeting, Wier stressed that council felt it had no alternative except to appeal directly to the province.

“We feel that the minister needs to be involved and we are hoping that she can sort things out and help us in our plight to keep the library at full hours,” he said. “We don’t want to lose hours, but don’t feel that the municipality should have to raise taxes to keep our library open. We maintain the building … What they [ECRL] are asking for seems to be an exorbitant amount of money.”

The ECRL operates under the terms of the Nova Scotia Libraries Act. Its board members come from six municipalities: Town of Mulgrave; the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s, the Town of Port Hawkesbury, Inverness County and Richmond County. Roughly 80 per cent of its annual $1.2 spending budget comes from the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. About 18 per cent per cent comes from the participating municipalities. The balance comes from other fundraising activities.