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Three per cent COLA increase not enough for library

Several Town of Barrhead councillors express concerns that the proposed library budget did not include enough of a pay increase for staff
Town of Barrhead Coun. Ty Assaf suggested to Barrhead Public Library director Elaine Dickie during Nov. 8’s council meeting that she should rework their 2023 budget to include a larger cost of living adjustment increase for staff.

BARRHEAD – Barrhead Public Library director Elaine Dickie was concerned that town councillors might balk at her 2023 budget proposal, which asks the municipality for a significant increase in their annual contribution to the library. 

However, as it turns out, Dickie's concern was unwarranted, as Town of Barrhead councillors suggested during their Nov. 8 meeting that the library board redraft the budget, adding additional money for staff wage increases above what the library board had budgeted. The proposed 2023 budget included a three per cent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for library staff. 

To help prepare council for the sticker shock, Dickie and librarian Kyle Huges gave a presentation on the library's programming to council Oct. 25.  

The 2023 budget calls for the Barrhead municipalities to increase their per capita contribution from $19 to $21. The increase amounts to an extra $9,158, upping the town's contribution from $87,001 to $96,159. For the county, the per capita increase would amount to a $12,576 increase, from $119,472 in 2022 to $132,048 in 2023. 

It is the second-straight year the library board has asked for an increase in the municipal contribution. For the 2022 budget, the library asked for, and received, a 56-cent per capita increase from the town and county.  

It is worth mentioning that the library is using the higher 2016 census numbers. In the 2021 Canadian census, the town and county's populations decreased by 5.7 and 6.5 per cent, respectively. 

"This has been the most confusing and trying year I have had in my more than 20 years with the library," Dickie said. "The census and the cost of living are all over the place." 

She noted the COLA increase amounts to 3.9 per cent in the overall $376,968 budget. 

"For us, that is a hefty increase, but we have reached the point in our operations that we need this money," Dickie said. "We are pretty much a skeleton staff already."  

She added that as part of the COLA increase, the board is also working on increasing the amount of paid holiday time available for staff members with a minimum of eight years of seniority. 

Later in the meeting, she noted that the library has 10 staff members, only two of which are full-time (Dickie being one), to control staffing costs. Two are considered two-thirds time; three are one-third time, and the rest are summer students or pages. 

However, she went on to say that having such a small complement was a challenge at the best of times during the fall and winter cold and flu season, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem. 

In October alone, Dickie said, three senior staff members were away for more than 12 days with COVID-like symptoms. 

"The result is I have (part-time) staff members working full-time and beyond," she said. 

And although Dickie said they are asking for an increase in the municipalities' per capita contribution, the library is not asking for a hike in their contribution for utilities and janitorial budget, despite the projected jump in utility prices. For the last several years, the town and county have been contributing roughly half of the library's utility and janitorial budget, with the municipalities contributing $11,500 in 2022. 

To cope with the expected rise in utility costs, the library is hoping to be able to tap into its casino funding. 

However, Dickie is not sure whether the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) will allow them to use the funds. 

"I have to tell you we are really in a bind with our AGLC funds (which includes the proceeds of the library's recent Wine Survivor event)," she said. "Because we don't own the building (the library shares space with Barrhead Elementary School), the funds cannot be used for anything constituting building improvement. Nor can we use it for things like purchasing books or staffing ... There are many other nice things we could buy, but what we really need is to be able to use (casino funds) for operations and salaries." 

She noted that if the municipalities did not approve the increase, they would have to consider cutting back their hours at a time when the community needs their services more than ever. 

"We are important to the community, especially those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, and it is important that our doors stay open," Dickie said. "We've become the unofficial after-school care centre for a lot of kids whose parents can't get childcare and are working. We are also a community centre for those with nowhere else to be." 

Coun. Dave Sawatzky asked why Pembina Hills School Division's (PHSD) contribution is declining. 

Dickie replied the library's funding agreement with PHSD is similar to the one they have with the municipalities. 

"We get $50 per (BES student), and enrolment is going down," she said. "And the school does cost us money. We need to have someone in the library when the school is open, that's two extra hours a day, and then we process all their books." 

Coun. Don Smith suggested that the reason the library was in such dire financial straits was largely due to the province dropping the ball. 

"When was the last time the province increased library funding?" he asked. 

Dickie said the province's $5.55 per capita contribution has not changed in 10 years. She also objected to the government's claim that they always based their funding on the highest population estimate available, adding that wasn't their experience. 

Smith replied that in recent weeks, he and other councillors have stated the importance of social programs in the community and how the province is continually downloading their responsibility to municipalities. 

"It is something I plan to bring up with (Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken) when he attends our next meeting," he said. "Just those two hours after school are so important. It is almost like the library is becoming a daycare. It is just something (municipalities) are tasked with and will be for years, and we certainly need the support of the provincial government." 

Mayor Dave McKenzie agreed, saying the Barrhead library continually goes beyond expectations. 

Coun. Rod Klumph, council's representative on the library board, considered the budget "nearly barebones" saying a three per cent COLA increase is more than reasonable given that the inflation rate is eight per cent or higher. 

Coun. Ty Assaf agreed, suggesting the library board rework its budget to include a more substantial COLA increase. 

"If the other organizations that come to us are budgeting for a seven or eight per cent COLA increase, don't be afraid to ask us for the same," he said, realizing that the board probably lowered their ask to what they believed council would accept. "When we get into that budget room, we will do everything in our power to see that you get that eight per cent. This organization is a huge part of our community. If you came to us with that ask, I would consider it." 

Smith echoed Assaf's sentiments. 

"It's wonderful that the library provides such a great service, but don't forget about yourselves," he said. 

Council then suggested that Dickie rework the budget, increasing the amount for COLA to something closer to the true cost of inflation. 


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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