Powassan council to revisit library proposal to increase budget by 26 per cent

Powassan town council plans to revisit a request from the local library board to raise its budget by 26 per cent this year.

Council first rejected the proposal from the Powassan District Union Public Library at its April 2nd meeting and countered with a seven percent increase.

However, following a presentation from the library board members and its CEO at the April 16th meeting, Mayor Peter McIsaac said despite the council already setting its budget, “we’re going to bring the library portion back to our next meeting”.

During the latest meeting, library vice chair Debbie Piper explained the rationale for the 26 per cent increase.

But Piper also wanted to know how the council came up with a seven per cent counter offer.

“It seemed that the number was pulled out of the air,” Piper said.

In response Deputy Mayor Markus Wand said the seven per cent was not a number “pulled out of the sky”.

“It's a number that we feel we could support this year and in multiple years moving forward,” Wand said.

And Councillor Leo Patey noted that the seven percent was an increase that was well above the annual increases the library has received since 2013.

Patey added it was his intention to propose another seven percent rise to the library budget in 2025 and continue in that fashion until the 26 per cent was achieved as long as the municipality could afford increases of that size.

During the library presentation, the council was told the main reason for the 26 per cent increase was that staff wages have not kept up with the cost of living for more than a decade.

Furthermore, the 2024 budget was an effort to have the employees move closer to pay equity for library employees working in similar sized communities with populations of 5,000 to 15,000.

But right now, the library employees are among the lowest paid when compared to their counterparts in other communities.

Council was shown a chart that indicates from 2013 to 2023 the cost of living has risen 34 per cent but the salaries of the Powassan library workers have increased only 13 per cent.

“The wage increase that's being proposed is really reasonable considering the depth of the gap that needs to be closed,” board member Laurie Forth told council.

Forth added the library did not want to lose quality staff members as a result of wages that are not comparable to their counterparts elsewhere.

Forth said without an increase to the budget, the library could be looking at reduced operating hours which means a reduction in programs and services.

She said the employees would be paid the same amount they earn now, but the library would be open for shorter periods.

The library is a shared service by Powassan, Chisholm and Nipissing and vice chair Piper said according to figures from Powassan's treasury department, a 26 per cent increase works out to an average property tax increase of $10 a year per household.

While not disputing the dollar amount, Mayor McIsaac said increasing the library budget by 26 per cent would increase Powassan's municipal levy by 30 per cent.

The library's CEO Marie Rosset told council the library is a very busy place.

During the first three months of the year, Rosset said the library has added 55 new members and believes it's because it hosts numerous programs and events and is able to engage the public.

In the first quarter, the library hosted 276 events and Rosset added 4,671 physical items that were circulated to the public.

Rosset said two recent events were an eclipse party and a small fish hatchery display in one area of the library where children were taught about aquatic life.

The library doesn't only depend on municipal dollars to help run it.

Rosset said so far this year, it's received nearly $52,000 in grants and has applications for more grants totaling nearly $93,000.

During the debate on pay equity, board member Forth said if the budget for a 26 per cent increase was not approved, one step for the library board was to address this through a pay equity study, and that could become costly.

“The study itself could be a considerable expense,” Forth told council.

Forth further said if wages rose as a result of a pay equity study, those increases could be applied retroactively resulting in “a much higher payout than what we were considering in this budget”.

About 10 years ago Powassan carried out a pay equity study, but the library was not included.

The library officials wanted to know why.

“You're not municipal employees,” said Mayor McIsaac.

He added the firm that carried out the study “determined you are not municipal employees and that's why you were not included”.

McIsaac told the library board members and employees they were probably feeling stressed over this issue, but it was not council's intention to be adversarial.

McIsaac said council and the community needed to hear first-hand from the library why it was proposing a 26 per cent increase.

Before McIsaac said council would revisit the issue at its next meeting vice chair Piper acknowledged “26 per cent is a scary number”.

But she also hoped the council agreed “the library is too good of an asset for our community to give up”.

“So many people depend on it,” Piper said.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget