ST. MARY’S – Mired in a funding dispute with Eastern Counties Regional Library (ECRL), council for the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s is now shopping for a potential new partner, the neighbouring Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library (PARL), to run the cutback-saddled Sherbrooke branch, The Journal has learned.
“We have asked staff to draft a letter to send to Pictou-Antigonish,” St. Mary’s Warden Greg Wier confirmed in an email. “As we are the stewards of the taxpayers, we felt it was in the best interest of the taxpayers to explore all possible options.”
Wier said ECRL’s decision to cut public hours in Sherbrooke by 40 per cent, including typically busy weekends – unless the district pays as much as 60 per cent more per year (from $16,927 to $27,458), has forced council’s hand.
“If your insurance company increased your premiums by 40 per cent for the same coverage, with no option but to pay more or accept less coverage, most people being fiscally responsible would look for other options,” he said. “It was [our] consensus to explore other options.”
Adding that “nothing is definite yet”, Wier said council will send the letter in advance of a meeting planned for May 3 with ECRL CEO Laura Emery “to discuss [the] increase and possible options … We hope to restore the open hours of the library in Sherbrooke to a more user-friendly schedule for all residents of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s.”
That, however, seems increasingly unlikely. In emails to The Journal over the past several weeks, Emery has maintained that the ECRL’s “funding alignment” is both justifiable and necessary.
“The open hours costs [at the Sherbrooke Library] have been paid with the assistance of tax dollars from the Municipality of the County of Inverness and the Municipality of the County of Richmond,” she said. “[But] library open hours need to correspond to the population and tax base that generates the funding.”
Responding to community criticism last week – which characterized the cutbacks as, among other things, “an attack on children and poor people” – she said: “We’re encouraged to hear that people care about library service and would like to see the service restored. We hope that concerned individuals will speak with their councillors to support increased municipal funding for library service.”
For its part, St. Mary’s council has sent a letter to Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Suzanne Lohnes-Croft asking her to “intervene and investigate” the matter. “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,” the complaint noted. “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.”
Meanwhile, it added, “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.”
Last month, responding to a request for information from The Journal, Communities, Culture and Heritage stated: “Ultimately, library boards are tasked with providing an equitable level of service across the region they serve. Municipalities must work collegially and productively with their library board to determine distribution and service levels that are acceptable to all municipal funders.”
It is not clear what reaction, if any, St. Mary’s council is likely to get from PARL. District sources close to the issue, who declined to be identified, said severing ties with one library board in the province only to forge new ones with a neighbouring one is “certainly unusual” and “probably unprecedented.”
Like ECRL, PARL is one of nine institutions in Nova Scotia that comprise the regional system created through the Public Libraries Act. Each member is governed by an independent board, with up to 80 per cent funding provided by the province and the balance from municipalities.
Council convened Monday afternoon (April 26) to prepare for the upcoming meeting with ECRL.
“We are going to keep residents of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s updated via the municipality’s website and Facebook. As well, any resident is more than welcome to reach out to any council member with concerns,” Wier said.