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Library board rescinds access to Perth South students who attend school outside St. Marys amid ongoing funding dispute



By Galen Simmons

The ongoing funding dispute between the St. Marys library board and Perth South has taken its latest toll as library board members reluctantly voted last week to rescind free access to the St. Marys Public Library for students who live in Perth South and do not attend school in St. Marys or its Perth County Information Network (PCIN) partner communities.

At the July 4 library board meeting, members agonized over whether to continue honouring a 2015 PCIN agreement to provide free library cards to students across the county, including in Perth South, after a dispute over how much funding St. Marys’ neighbouring township should pay this year so its residents could continue using the St. Marys library free of charge. After the township and the library board could not come to a funding agreement, the library board voted in May to restrict Perth South residents’ ability to check out books, e-books and other materials, however local students were still permitted to do so in accordance with the PCIN agreement.

“St. Marys along with our PCIN partners agreed to provide library cards to students in multiple boards,” St. Marys library CEO Sarah Andrews told the board of the 2015 agreement. “ … It was intended to support students in their literacy development and their access to information in a public library. It provided them with a library card that could be used in any library in Perth County.

“ … It does shed a different light on our situation with Perth South. When this agreement was reached, we had received funding for many years from Perth South, so everyone in Perth County was participating and paying into the library system. As we know, that’s changed, so it is the St. Marys Public Library board’s decision whether we will continue to support this initiative or whether we say we are taking a break from it while Perth South takes a break from having a service agreement with us.”

During the lengthy discussion that followed, both Andrews and library board chair Cole Atlin emphasized the fact that the Perth South funding cut was already taking its toll on the St. Marys library as operating hours are being cut this year and staff have been working to reduce costs wherever possible. The board’s decision, Andrews said, is about what level of commitment the library should have in serving Perth South residents now that Perth South is not paying St. Marys for its library services.

“It’s equally hard, if not harder, to say, ‘I’m sorry, your municipality doesn’t have an agreement with us,’ to young moms, to people who need to use the computer, to the people who come in and just need a quick photocopy, to people who want to participate in summer programs,” Andrews said. “It’s not an easy discussion with anybody. … Every single one of them is very difficult for staff to have that discussion with them.”

“This is not why any of us joined the library board,” Atlin added. “To cut hours and to take service away and take cards away; do you think that any of us are excited to come here and have these discussions? I certainly am not.”

While the board decided to rescind access to the library for students who live in Perth South and do not attend school in St. Marys, members seemed marginally hopeful about approaching Perth South council with a potential PCIN service agreement that would see a portion of the township’s remaining library budget go toward reinstating library cards for all Perth South students.

In the meantime, Atlin said she and Andrews would meet with Stratford Public Library CEO Krista Robinson and Stratford Public Library board chair Michael Corbett to determine how that board plans to deal with its own Perth South funding cuts in next year’s budget and whether it will honour the 2015 PCIN agreement as it relates to Perth South going forward.

St. Marys library hours to be reduced in 2024 and 2025 due to funding shortfall

Also at the July 4 library board meeting, board members voted to approve a number of service cuts this year and in 2025 to make up for the shortfall in funding resulting from the lack of a service agreement with Perth South.

While the library provided services to Perth South residents from Jan. 1 to April 30 and it received payment for those services of $24,787.68, to have a balanced budget without the full funding from Perth South, Andrews said the 2024 budget would need to reflect the loss of $49,576.

To help recover those savings, Andrews said she met with her staff and found ways to reduce a number of budget lines in the library’s 2024 budget without noticeably impacting overall service levels for library users. This included reducing the office-supplies budget by $2,160, the contracted-services budget by $4,854 and the capital-book-purchase budget by $11,804 among others, while increasing projected revenue from donations by $5,000 and adding a $5,000 contribution from reserves.

“The cuts to the budget lines bring us down to $35,771, which doesn’t get us to $49,000, so there are two service-level cuts,” Andrews said. “ … The first is to close Saturday afternoons – which would save us three staff who work normally on a Saturday afternoon – for three months in 2024 and then for all of 2025. That saves us about $4,000 in 2024 and $16,000 in 2025.

“The second service-level change for staffing is to close Thursday evenings and that saves us $5,363 in 2024 and about $10,000 in 2025.”

The board also approved budget cuts for 2025 to make up the full $74,363 in lost funding from Perth South, and board members expressed interest in donating their honorariums totalling $1,000 back to the library to help offset that funding shortfall.

At the April 4 library board meeting, board members discussed a March 20 letter sent by Perth South CAO Fred Tranquilli informing the board the township council had reduced its budgetary allocation for library services from both Stratford and St. Marys to just $53,734 combined and asked the St. Marys library board to reduce its funding request. The library board voted down that request, citing the fact St. Marys residents already subsidize library services for their neighbours in Perth South.

As part of a 20-year service agreement between Perth South, the Huron County Library in Kirkton, the St. Marys Public Library and the Stratford Public Library, Perth South was asked by the St. Marys library board to contribute $74,363 – an increase by five per cent over what the township paid last year – to allow Perth South residents to access free library services from St. Marys in 2024. The Stratford Public Library also requested $45,480 from Perth South to allow its residents to access library services there.

In his letter, Tranquilli said Perth South council already approved a request from the Huron County Library for $11,266 in funding this year. While Tranquilli said the budget for Stratford library services could be accommodated in this reduced budget allocation for library services, he asked the St. Marys library board to consider submitting a revised budget request that fits within Perth South’s allocation. As a result, the Stratford library board also opted not to renew its service agreement with Perth South.

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