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County of Barrhead approves library’s 2023 operating budget

Library board asks for 6.2 per cent increase in municipal funding
Barrhead Public Library board chair Ruth Bohn said during their budget presentation to County of Barrhead councillors on Nov. 15 that demand for the library's services is increasing, especially among lower wage earners.

BARRHEAD – The Barrhead Public Library will get at least part of the cash infusion they were hoping for. 

County of Barrhead councillors approved the 2023 library operating budget of $376,759 with a municipal contribution of $136,807, during their Nov. 15 meeting. The amount includes 50 per cent of the expected utility costs. The municipal contribution, minus the amount for utilities, works out to approximately $21 per capita. 

The budget will become part of the county's overall interim budget, which council will consider sometime in December.  

Library director Dickie and board chair Ruth Bohn presented the library operating budget to Town of Barrhead council on Nov. 8. 

However, councillors suggested they rework the budget to include a more substantial cost of living allowance (COLA) increase for library staff. The budget presented to both councils included a three per cent COLA increase. 

It is the second straight year the library has asked for an increase. Last year, the board asked for and received a 56 cent per capita increase from the town and county.  

It is worth mentioning this does not include the additional amount the library asked for later in order to increase their staff wage increase closer to what town and county staff received, going from one per cent to four. Dickie noted the three per cent COLA increase is the board's effort to combat inflation. 

"I did a projection of what they are making (inflation), and they are in the position that every month they are losing about $100 to cover the basic expenses of rent and food and not allowing anything for a rainy day, retirement, or emergencies," she said. 

Reeve Doug Drozd asked how library staffing levels are. 

Currently, the library has 10 staff members, two of which are considered full-time, with Dickie being one. Two are two-thirds time and three are one-third time. The rest are either pages or summer students.  

Dickie noted that demand for library services is increasing. 

"Which typically happens when there is a downturn in the economy because one of the first things people do to save money is to utilize their public library," she said. 

Dickie added they are seeing a large influx of children after school, not only from the Barrhead schools, but Neerlandia Public School students when they get off the transfer bus. 

Basically, she said, parents are using the library for free childcare until they can pick them up after work. 

"For our sanity, we have set up Lego and other games until they can pick them up," Dickie said, adding professional tutors are also using the library as a space to work with their clients. 

"And while all that is happening, we are experiencing an uptick in COVID, the flu and other respiratory viruses that hit our staff hard," she said. "Three of our senior staff have been off for prolonged periods —12-days or more." 

As a partial reward, Dickie said they hope to use part of the extra municipal funds to pay for additional paid vacation time for staff members with at least eight years of seniority.  

"We also wanted to bring us more in line with what (Pembina Hills School Division) is doing, which we used to form our employee structure and matches what the Neerlandia Public Library is doing," she said.  

Dickie added they also hope to use any surplus money at the end of the year to build up their reserves, noting that in recent years they have been forced to dip into their rainy day fund. 

"Reserves are now at $32,000. Typically we like to keep at least three months of salaries in reserve because, in the last few years, the province has been erratic in paying out their grants. One time we did not get anything from the province until July. It is supposed to come in April," she said. 

The library board also hope the province will increase its per capita grant of $5.55. The amount has remained static since 2015.  

Dickie also noted the province is also using old 2011 census numbers to provide the grants. 

"We do have some hope," she said. "The Alberta Public Library Administrators Council has been actively lobbying for an increase. We are hearing some support, especially since they are seeing a lot of money from oil and gas." 

It is also important to note that the library also receives $50 per student from PHSD as they share space and provide services to Barrhead Elementary School. Unfortunately, for the library, BES enrollment is trending downwards. 

Drozd asked why so little of the library's revenue was coming from its users. 

"We have surveyed our residents, and it is clear they expect users pay, rather than automatically putting it on the taxpayer. Looking at your budget, it is a flat line with you looking to bring in $7,500 in membership fees and only $1,500 from programs," he said.  

Dickie noted the library's policy has been to run its additional programming on a cost-recovery basis, and they raised their membership rates in 2019. 

Adult memberships went from $12 to $15 and increased their family membership for up to four people by $5 to $25. Junior and senior memberships remained the same at $5 and $10. 

"But we lost people," she said. "When people say user pay, it is not the users who say it." 

Dickie added the province says municipalities should fund libraries to at least 70 per cent of their budget. 

By Dickie's calculations, in 2022, not including the municipality's contribution to the Yellowhead Regional Library, the Barrhead municipalities contribute roughly 63 per cent. 

"So you have a ways to go," she said. 

County manager Debbie Oyarzun said that using the 2021 federal census data, which saw the town and county's populations decrease, the library's ask amounts to roughly a six per cent increase. 

"Historically, we have used  MSI (municipal sustainability initiative) operating grants to cover our municipal contribution, but they do not fully cover the requirement of both the library and YRL. So, we will need to use some tax revenue." 

She also suggested that it might be a good idea for the library to undertake a total staff compensation review to compare how staffing levels and salaries compare with libraries serving communities of similar size. 

"I have seen some data from them," Oyarzun said. “But usually, they are making comparisons with libraries in Edmonton or St. Albert, and not a good comparitor for the County of Barrhead and the library." 

Drozd agreed, saying many libraries are also run largely by volunteers. 

He also noted his concern about the potential of every group, organization, or municipal department, asking for a similar six per cent increase in their budgets. 

"This is comparatively a small budget," deputy reeve Marvin Schatz interjected. "Imagine if public works came in with that request." 


Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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