ST. MARY’S – Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s Warden Greg Wier said the Eastern Counties Regional Library’s (ECRL) decision to cut Sherbrooke branch hours by 40 per cent “seems premature,” adding that “neither the municipality nor ECRL has set a budget for next year.”
Weir’s comments followed ECRL’s announcement Thursday that it is slashing hours at the Sherbrooke Library from 9:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday), effective April 6. Similar cutbacks were rolled out for the Canso Library and the Cyril Ward Memorial Library in Guysborough.
“Council will weigh their options before accepting reduced hours for the Sherbrooke Library as announced,” Wier said.
In the ECRL press release, Board Chair Shirley McNamara stated: “Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy in-person library service somewhere near their community. The only way the Board can achieve this is by making sure all of ECRL’s municipal funders get their tax dollars spent on local library service. Going forward, library open hours will correspond to the population and tax base generating the funding.”
The announcement came only two weeks after the St. Mary’s council called on Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Suzanne Lohnes-Croft to “investigate and intervene on this matter in order to ensure that the province’s subsidized and equitable model of providing library services to rural areas is held in place and that the hours of our service at the Sherbrooke library be restored.”
In the letter, council also questioned how ECRL – which operates nine branches in eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton – spends the money it receives from municipalities and the provincial government, which account for 20 and 80 per cent, respectively, of its annual $1-million-plus funding.
“The [ECRL] board and their administration have not presented any options to the participating municipalities to accommodate any budgetary shortfall within the ERCL to maintain the current service levels,” the letter said. “Rather, the 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.”
Responding to a Journal email asking whether ECRL would consider an alternative to its demand for $10,000 more per year from the district just to keep the library open at the current 25 hours a week, ECRL CEO and Chief Librarian Laura Emery said: “Yes … The total cost of 25 open hours per week at any ECRL branch is $27,458 ($10,531 more than the current funding) … St. Mary’s [now] provides $16,927, which pays for 15 open hours per week.”
But, she added, “The total cost of 20 open hours per week at any ECRL branch is $21,966 ($5,039 more than the current funding) … If the municipality provides us with a different amount of funding, [we] will calculate the open hours that can be afforded.”
Emery also used the phrase “population and tax base” to explain why the cuts only affect the library’s Sherbrooke, Guysborough and Canso branches and not its other outlets.
“Historically, the tax base from these areas has not been enough to cover the costs of the full open hours in these locations,” she said. “Therefore, the open hours costs 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. This has now changed so that the funds from each municipality are serving the library needs of that municipality’s population. Library open hours need to correspond to the population and tax base that generates the funding.”
Regarding the cut to weekends, when families with children typically use the library in Sherbrooke, she said: “With limited hours we need to prioritize … and have chosen a schedule based on actual usage patterns. Saturdays have traditionally had use but are not the busiest times. We realize a lack of Saturday and later afternoon hours will impact children and families most, an important part of the community. We encourage everyone to take advantage of our Borrow by Mail service and digital library services.”
She added: “We understand how upsetting this is for users of the Sherbrooke, Guysborough and Canso libraries … We do understand it is difficult for people experiencing the negative impacts of the funding alignment.”
In its letter to Minister Lohnes-Croft, St. Mary’s council stated: “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. 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 …This is a substantial increase in requested funds to a small, rural community and would force municipal council to raise tax rates to provide services at the current level.”
Wier said council has not received a response from the minister to its letter. Emery, however, confirmed that “the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage has requested information about the funding alignment, our service levels and programming [and] we have cooperated and provided the requested information,” noting: “If [St. Mary’s] chooses to enhance its contributions for its library services, we would be happy to provide corresponding enhancement of services.”
Meanwhile, Wier said, “Council continues to maintain and improve the Sherbrooke Library and this week had a contractor install insulation in the basement.”
Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal