Ministry of Education representatives are meeting with regional library representatives this week in an attempt to stem the flow from the death blow the province dealt them with a 58 per cent cut to operational funding.
The Southeast Regional Library board voted to increase its per capita funding by $5.77 cents this past weekend at their annual general meeting in Weyburn. Weyburn mayor Marcel Roy said the city is legally required to pay that increased but without it the Southeast Regional Library, headquartered in Weyburn, would have been forced to close its doors by Labour Day.
A key service both the provincial government and regional libraries would like to see up and running again is the inter-library loan system. Regional libraries suspended the program because they no longer had the funds to run it.
"If somebody wants a book in Lake Alma from Melfort right now what happens is that book goes from Melfort to the (regional library) headquarters in Prince Albert to the (regional library) headquarters in Weyburn and then out to Lake Alma. So we think that that can continue but why does it take that many steps that we're all paying for?" asked Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan of the Inter-library loan system and suggested there might be a cheaper way to run it and get it going again.
"We can get an item from anywhere in the province to anywhere in the province in seven to 10 days," said James Richards, branch manager of the Southeast Regional Library, who explained they use a hub-and-spoke delivery system, just like Canada Post. "Given the huge dispersal of libraries and people across this province, it's a huge geographic area to cover, I think that's a pretty good system. I'm not sure how much more fat can be trimmed off of that."
Richards did say the regional libraries may be able to find other cost savings somewhere in their operations but it would take time to plan and implement changes. "We need time to be able to have those discussions and with the recent budget cuts we just don't have time to look at efficiencies or economies," said Richards.
Duncan said the government shared the provinces riches with its partners when times were good.
"We had record revenue in a couple of different budgets going back a few years and all of our partners have shared in that: the local libraries, the regional libraries, the municipalities. The City of Weyburn is moving forward with a new reservoir that is in part funded by the provincial government," said Duncan. "We're going through a difficult time though in the last couple of years and we need to get back to a balanced position so we're asking those same partners that benefited in those times of record revenue to help us."
James Richards, branch manager of the Southeast Regional Library, said the libraries didn't see any extra operational funding during the good times.
"The provincial grant is funded by a formula based on population so our funding stays pretty well stable whether it's good times or bad times. We certainly didn't see any increases during the boom times for the regional libraries," said Richards.
Both Duncan and Richards said they feel there are many other misconceptions in the public about the libraries and how they are funded and managed. Since the province did not consult with any of the regional libraries before slashing their funding by nearly 60 per cent, they also missed the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings among themselves before the budget dropped. Duncan said that still would not have guaranteed everybody was happy with the result.
"I think there are some things that have been maybe lost in this. This doesn't affect the local branches because they aren't funded by the provincial government. They are funded by the municipalities so as long as Weyburn, or Lake Alma, or Radville want to continue to fund their local library there will be a local library but we know the regional library headquarters does help to do a lot of the coordination of the services," said Duncan and said saving the Inter-library Loan System is a priority.
Richards agreed with all that but highlighted inter-library loans are organized and managed by the regional libraries. Staff for the local libraries are also hired, trained and compensated through the regional libraries HR branches. E-resources, summer reading programs and more are all coordinated through the regional libraries. Without the regional libraries, all of those tasks would fall to the municipalities, who are also having to trim their budgets in the wake of the newest provincial budget.
Another subject which has caused confusion is whether or not regional libraries have savings or surplus accounts they can dip into during the cuts. Richards said the Southeast Regional Library does have a surplus of roughly $230,000 and that, while he can't say for certain, other regions are likely in similar positions. He said that funding was just enough to keep the Southeast Regional Library going for roughly two and a half months if they were forced to close so they could give their staff proper lay-off notice. He added it took the regional library nearly two decades of careful financial planning to put those funds aside.
The province's 58 per cent funding cut to the province's regional libraries amounts to $4.8 million of the $14.8 billion budget - about one third of one per cent. Corporations were given a tax break of one half of a percentage point this year with another half a percentage point reduction in 2019. Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan said tough cuts were needed to bridge the $1.2 billion deficit still facing the province.
"It'd be nice if there were just two or three things you could change or cut to close that gap. The problem is you have to find it in the $4 million, the $10 million, the $20 million. All of those things eventually have to add up," said Duncan.