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Cuts council is considering would be 'devastating' for library: CEO

The city is eyeing a $1.5-million cut to the library's grant, phased in over three years.
3108 library cuts file CC
Any official proposals about budget cuts will come before council during budget deliberations later in the year. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

The CEO of the St. Albert Public Library says cuts the city is eyeing — a $1.5-million reduction to library funding over the next three years — would be “devastating” for the library. 

During an Aug. 16 committee of the whole meeting, city administration explored one-off measures to reduce a projected 8.2-per-cent 2023 tax increase, including reducing community grants. Council discussed a reduction of $1.5 million to the library’s annual grant of $4.6 million. 

The cut would be phased over three years of $500,000 reductions, with the first beginning in 2023. 

The discussions remain preliminary, with any official proposals to come before council during budget deliberations later in the year. 

In a statement released the morning of Aug. 29, the library board said the 35-per-cent cut would “imperil the continued operation of everything the library does.”

Peter Bailey, library CEO, said in an interview the library feels singled out by the city. 

Bailey noted the city is not currently exploring internal cuts, such as service reductions, but instead turning to one-offs to reduce the tax increase in 2023.

In an interview Aug. 22, St. Albert's chief administrative officer Bill Fletcher told The Gazette this is because it is “very difficult” to fundamentally change or cancel service levels. Instead, the city will explore internal adjustments for the 2024 budget. 

“We’re the one city service that’s being faced with such a big cut to its funding,” Bailey said, adding that hearing about council’s discussion has been “so surprising and so disappointing.”

“This will have a devastating effect on the library,” Bailey said. 

In the release, the library board said a cut to library funding targets St. Albert’s “most vulnerable citizens" in their recovery from the pandemic.

Bailey noted the library has been operating with a seven-per-cent budget reduction since 2020 when the pandemic began. 

“We are a team player,” Bailey said, adding that the library has never asked for its funding to be restored, and has instead continued to operate with a diminished budget. 

Councillors voice support for cuts

During the Aug. 16 committee of the whole meeting, councillors said they would be open to considering the three-year phased cut. 

Diane McMordie, the city’s chief financial officer, said the $1.5-million amount was chosen because it is the lowest end of the bracket for how much cost savings the Ernst & Young operational and fiscal review said could be found through the library (with the higher end coming in around $2.7 million). 

Coun. Ken MacKay said he has heard from members of the public that they would support cuts to the library. 

“We could have that back and forth,” MacKay said. “I mean, it’s going to be hard.”

Coun. Wes Brodhead said he would “probably” support the cut. 

“I’d love to see the work of the library in terms of their financial audit,” Brodhead said. “Having said that, if we’re overspending … the library is going to have to get used to that idea.” 

Coun. Natalie Joly agreed with Brodhead, adding that she doesn’t “want to micromanage” how the library ultimately enacts the cuts. “I don’t think that’s our place.”

Coun. Mike Killick also voiced support, adding the phased-in approach is “fair.”

“We wouldn’t want to all of a sudden surprise cut somebody off cold turkey. That would not be right,” Killick said. 

Like Brodhead, Coun. Sheena Hughes said she would like to wait for the library’s internal audit — which the city contributed $100,000 for last year — to make an ultimate decision about library grant funding. 

“I’m looking forward to seeing that report and I’m really hoping they took the offer seriously, and didn’t come back with something that isn’t substantial enough,” Hughes said. 

Bailey said he anticipates the results of the audit will come before the library board in September. 

“Council will have access to the report soon after that,” Bailey said. 

Jensen Lakes Library

Hughes also said during the Aug. 16 meeting that she would like to see the library close their branch in Jensen Lakes to quickly scale back their operations. 

Bailey said should council approve the cuts, the financial magnitude means “everything’s on the table.”

He noted the St. Albert Public Library has the second-lowest per-capita facility area of its regional comparators, and losing the Jensen Lakes library would put it further behind other regional libraries.  

“This is the one city service that is up in the north of St. Albert and available to new residents as well as all the young families that are coming there,” Bailey said. 
The library board will continue to respond to the proposed cuts over the coming months, the release said.