A year after the government threatened to shut down 54 libraries (more than half of the province’s libraries), and provoked a storm of protest, a $187,000 consultants’ report pointed out funding of the system, even before the planned cuts, was “very low compared to virtually all other provinces.” But it is becoming apparent a solution to the problem will take years.
The same report pointed out that in every other province save PEI, an average of 80% of library funding comes from municipalities, and it recommends the province and the municipalities (through Municipalities NL) meet to negotiate a new model, with (mainly) larger municipalities targeted to provide additional funds.
Municipalities NL won’t be able to respond to the report collectively before its AGM in November, but according to its President, Karen Oldford, there can be no “quick fix” – a solution will be two or three years in the making, and tied up with reform of provincial laws governing how cities and towns can raise money and what services they are responsible for providing.
At present, she says, they are not allowed to support the day-to-day running of libraries, though they can and do support them indirectly by, for example, housing them in municipal buildings. They also have some other pressing issues they have to deal with – in particular decades of neglect of wastewater treatment. This is a municipal responsibility, and in an earlier CBC interview she suggested it might cost $500m for cities comply with federal regulations. In negotiations with the province, Municipalities NL will be looking for new ways to tax residents to raise money for this, as at present 75% of cities’ income comes from property taxes.
Meanwhile Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries has no plans for what it might do if its funding were raised. Andrew Hunt, its executive director, explained, “our strategic planning system only permits planning within our fiscal envelope.”
He acknowledged that the report shows the system is underfunded – the $9m a year gap between the province’s funding and the Canadian average is “not really news to people inside the library system,” he says. But since the municipalities have said they could not afford to make up the gap, “to plan to come out with a system that is going to double in size, [though] nobody has come forward with a monetary commitment, doesn’t seem to be a practical way to go about it.”
While the NLPL ponders an action plan aimed to feed into the 2018/19 budget, a group of citizens in St. John’s has already met councillors Sheilagh O’Leary and Sandy Hickman on the council’s Arts committee to press for the creation of a new library in downtown St John’s.
Both councillors support the idea and Hickman suggested, “if a new downtown library was developed the City may have other services or facilities that it could attach which may achieve some economies in operating costs and for which the City should pay for its share.”
But he added, “I firmly believe that the province must control and fund the complete provincial library system. Municipalities simply don’t have the ability to generate more revenue, short of raising taxes.” If municipalities (most of whom are worse off than St John’s) share this view, a solution to the libraries’ difficulties will remain as far away as ever.