City to pursue long-term library funding agreement

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Agreement won't be prerequisite for branch library

St. Albert city council will pursue a long-term funding agreement with the library board, but won’t delay the branch library to do so.

Council voted 6-1 to negotiate a long-term funding agreement with the board, but voted 4-3 against making it a prerequisite for building the new branch.

Coun. Cam MacKay brought forward a motion at the Feb. 21 meeting to require the board to enter a long-term funding agreement as a prerequisite for building the branch library.

He first brought forward the motion Jan. 9, arguing the growth in the city’s operating grants to the library was out of control, averaging about 8.5 per cent since 2000, and projecting they could balloon from $3.7 million in 2015 to more than $10 million in 2025, factoring the additional costs of a branch library.

An administrative backgrounder in council’s agenda package said this could delay the construction of a branch library by a year or more, with a potential cost escalation of six to 10 per cent.

Council approved Coun. Cathy Heron’s amendment to his motion, removing reference to the funding agreement being a prerequisite for building the branch.

MacKay opposed the amendment, saying in his discussions with the library board it was clear they weren’t interested in an agreement and the branch library should be used as “a carrot you throw on the table and discuss,” in order to force the issue.

“I can certainly tell there’s no desire whatsoever to enter any kind of grant funding agreement,” he said. “None whatsoever. Their motivation to do this is zero.”

Library board chair Janice Marschner said while the board was concerned about the possibility of delaying the branch library, and felt there was some redundancy here since the board already does long-term planning, there’s no opposition to working toward a funding agreement.

“If that’s where the city wants to go with their various departments and boards, then we’re always on board,” she said. “They’re our major funder, and we always want to be in the most positive position we can with them.”

Heron’s amendment carried with the support of Mayor Nolan Crouse and councillors Tim Osborne and Wes Brodhead.

“I don’t think we should enter into the negotiating table with them with a gun to their heads,” Brodhead said.

Once the amendment was approved, council voted in favour of pursuing a funding agreement. MacKay noted he believes in the value of the library, describing it as a “jewel in our community,” but said council needs to be able to rein in the cost increases.

Osborne, who represents council on the library board, took issue with the thrust of MacKay’s argument, pointing out that the average grant increases over the past five years are well below the 15-year average of 8.5 per cent, and noted some of those increases are due to decreased provincial grant funding rather than rampant spending by the board.

“I feel the need to dispel the notion that funding is out of control at the library,” he said.

Public opposition

Resident Reta Thompson also made a pitch to council at the Feb. 21 meeting, arguing library spending – based on the numbers MacKay has cited – was out of control and suggested there was not enough value for the investment.

She suggested the need for physical space will diminish as digital collections become more prominent, that space for activities and programs could be found in other existing facilities within the city, and that the money spent on the branch library would be better used for other purposes.

Thompson also argued that having the library board elected by residents rather than appointed by council would result in greater accountability with taxpayer money.

Council had no questions for her following her presentation, but MacKay asked staff to provide information about the feasibility of electing the board.

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Doug Neuman