Saturday, September 18, 2021

St. Mary’s questions ECRL in special meeting

Schedule, funding addressed

  • September 15 2021
  • By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

SHERBROOKE – The Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s held a special council meeting to hear a presentation from Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL) CEO Laura Emery and Innovation Project Manager Dana Thomas on Sept. 8.

Since April, the municipality and ECRL have been at loggerheads around reduced hours of service at the library, related to a newly-adopted funding formula which was, Emery said, handed down from the province in 2020.

Emery gave a 30-minute presentation on ECRL’s funding and service to council and a full gallery of concerned citizens. In the presentation, she explained that funding was provided to libraries by the provincial department of Communities, Culture and Heritage according to population density.

The ECRL covers the largest geographic area – Guysborough, Inverness and Richmond counties – with the lowest population density in the province, said Emery, adding this “defines both funding and the service structure; service challenges.”

The intricacies of the new funding formula were only explained to Emery verbally, she said, and told council, “I would suggest if you have questions about that funding formula, which is key to this issue, you should address them to the province directly, asking for a written explanation.”

Emery went on to explain that the provincial government funds populations at different levels, “Rather than funding the actual cost of providing library service or funding specific services, or specific service levels.”

The new funding formula brought about a fulsome review of service in the ECRL system. The review found, Emery said, that some parts of the region “had not been receiving the full benefits of library service that they were paying for … at the same time other parts of the region ECRL served were receiving more services than their contribution would support.”

It was to provide equitable service that library hours were reduced in Sherbrooke to match their municipal contribution, she said. “In terms of what equity is, it’s quality of being fair and impartial. And, in the context of the board’s funding decision, it means ensuring that those municipal funders receive a fair return for the tax dollars they invest in library service.”

According to ECRL data, over the past 10 years Sherbrooke has received service that far outweighed it’s mandated municipal contribution.

“In terms of what the service costs in St. Mary’s and the mandated contribution, $67,200 is the difference that you received over those 10 years.

“This is how the funding alignment, the equitable return on mandated contributions, the change in how funding is allocated to our municipal partners is reflected in the ‘21-‘22 budget. It is coming closer to the goal of treating everyone as fairly and equitably as possible. It is obviously not a benefit to your area because you have been brought down to the level of what you contribute. It is, however, a significant improvement for the 21,000 people served in Inverness and Richmond County,” said Emery.

Following Emery’s presentation, St. Mary’s Warden Greg Wier and CAO David Hutten asked questions of Emery that had been submitted by the public, or were formulated by council.

When asked if increased library use would result in more hours, Emery answered, “No, totally irrelevant. It’s all about money. Because, the thing is, we cannot evaluate need … social need versus use, versus love. The love for the library is universal throughout our region. People want more. People want 35 hours a week, they want weekends, they want evenings, they want programs, they want more new books; everybody wants more. Our municipal partners oversee the finances. They need to go back to their councils and explain where their money that they are contributing is going, and they want it to go to their area, [to] their residents, logically.

“So, you get back what can be afforded, the best we can do, with the tax contribution that you generate as part of the library funding,” said Emery.

The next question pertained to the number of patrons allowed in the library. The matter is in flux due to the move to Phase 5 in the province’s reopening plan this week, and the ECRL’s yet-to-be-determined occupational health and safety response to those changes.

There was a discussion about distributing hours of operation at the Sherbrooke library to include Saturdays, notably to allow children and youth more access. Emery agreed there could be further discussion on this point, but she warned that usage levels may drop, if the hours were changed.

The provision of fill-in employees was also brought up, due to the closure of the library when the staff member was unable to attend work during scheduled hours. Emery said, with current budgetary constraints, there was no redundancy in the system.

Emery also encouraged St. Mary’s council to research additional funding opportunities available to the municipality that could be applied to the library. An example she pointed to was the open library system at the ECRL’s Guysborough branch which, allows access to the library from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“For example, as a strategic communication to government, you could say, ‘Hey guys, we want $100,000 infrastructure investment in our library to get this system [open library].’”

When asked if non-library programs would be able to resume at the library, once COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Emery said they were in the process of determining what could be done but, she added, “I think, ultimately, we will disappoint someone because we do have occupational health and safety concerns.”

In 2019-2020, the ECRL received an additional $225,100 from the province. St. Mary’s asked where that money was spent, when they saw their hours cut almost in half, to which Emery explained that $31,000 of that money was a grant for French resources – a restricted use. Some of the money went to increasing the ECRL staff “to deal with our need to train and support branch staff.”

The ECRL also increased digital services, spent money on pandemic expenses and rectified a “massive facility issue at our head office.”

“The reality is that facility holds 20,000 books. That’s the back-up collection. Everybody shares that collection. We need that facility to be in reasonable shape. It’s where our regional team does all the work, the backbone, to support the libraries’ operations,” said Emery.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Wier thanked Emery and Thomas for their presentation, and said council looked forward to moving ahead with some of the issues addressed, notably opening on Saturdays.