Nova Scotia

Cash-strapped libraries wait anxiously for promised funding update

The Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage is reviewing the way it funds the province's nine regional library boards, and had signalled the new formula would be ready before the end of the year. However, as of this week, the boards had not received any update.

Province has said new funding formula would be ready this year

Denise Corey, chief librarian for Cumberland Public Libraries, says libraries need a long-term sustainable funding model. (CBC)

In Nova Scotia's Cumberland County, Denise Corey is preparing to put together the next budget for the region's seven library branches.

For Corey, the chief librarian for Cumberland Public Libraries, the budget process has become a familiar but tricky exercise: funding hasn't changed for the last decade or so, she said, even though the cost of providing services keeps rising.

And despite assurances from the provincial government that a new funding formula for libraries would be ready by the year's end, the province's nine regional boards have not received any news.

"I am always worried," said Corey, who will begin planning next month for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which starts April 1.

Even at the Truro library, which opened recently and is seeing lots of demand, the current funding structure makes it challenging to have enough staff. (CBC)

"I'm basically hoping I will hear something before I start working on that budget, because right now I would just have to base it on the same funding that we've been receiving for the last 10 or so years. And the cost of everything is going up."

The Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage is in charge of reviewing the way it funds the province's nine boards. 

In February, deputy minister Tracey Taweel told a legislative committee the department was "actively involved" in a library funding review and later told reporters she expected a new formula would be ready sometime later in 2018. 

Right now libraries are funded on a per capita basis, which both sides acknowledge puts small boards in areas with a declining population in a difficult position. The department says the overall funding for libraries has remained at $14.4 million for "a number" of years.

Tracey Taweel, the deputy minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, addressed the public accounts committee at the legislature in February. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

While funding has plateaued, libraries say the demands on their services have been increasing.

Corey's largest branch in Amherst gets about 1,000 visits a week in a town of 10,000 people.

"We have all kinds of people who come in," she said.

"Some people come in because they're inadequately homed and they just want a place that's warm for the day. Some people come in because they need internet access and they just don't have that at home."

Her counterpart in the Western Counties Regional Library system, Erin Comeau, will also start to budget plan for the next fiscal year in January and February.

Libraries are funded on a per capita basis, which puts ones in areas with a declining population in a difficult position. (CBC)

Since Comeau does not yet know what the funding formula will be, she is thinking about "multiple scenarios" for the many services library staff provide.

"We serve a large population of senior citizens and their needs continue to increase, especially in regards to use of technology," she said, adding that the libraries also serve as homes for a lot of community-led programming.

In a statement, the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage said it is "clear that the current per capita-based funding model is outdated," although it did not provide details on what the new formula will look like. It said work on the new model continues.

"We are very pleased with the progress we are making," the statement said. "When this work concludes, we look forward to sharing with library board chairs and the public."

The Lunenburg Library opened to the public in the summer of 2018. (Robert Short/CBC)

In each of the last two years, the province gave the library boards an additional injection of $474,000. That amount was split equally among the boards for a total of nearly $53,000 each, to be used for whatever each board needed most.

That money allowed the boards to avoid further cuts to staff and hours. However, the department made it clear those top-up amounts were not meant to continue regularly.

In the South Shore Public Libraries system, chief librarian Troy Myers said he has already reduced everything he can. South Shore has cut the equivalent of four full-time jobs, leaving only seven full-time staff positions. It has also downsized headquarters space by two-thirds.

"I've beaten up just about every supplier that I can to kind of give us better pricing," Myers joked. "We're at the point where we can no longer do more with less."

Troy Myers is the chief librarian at South Shore Public Libraries. (CBC)

Myers said he is hopeful the new funding formula will be a move away from per capita funding.

"You need a certain level of baseline funding in rural communities in particular, where per capita basis just doesn't work anymore."

Libraries in Nova Scotia get about 75 per cent of their funding from the provincial government. The rest comes from their municipalities and from fundraising.

Corey worries that when the province announces a new funding formula, it will still take approximately a year to become a reality because municipalities will need that time to incorporate the change into their yearly budgets.

A sign promotes a fundraiser at the library in Amherst. Libraries across the province are facing difficult decisions without a funding increase. (CBC)

"If they tell me it's coming in a year from now, I could probably make do. I can scrimp and save. I can find that money," she said.

However, if there is no new money in the formula, Corey said she would have to look at reducing hours at all branches and possibly closing a branch.

"It's not something that I want to do," she said, "but you have to pay people."

About the Author

Shaina Luck

Reporter

Shaina Luck covers everything from court to city council. Her favourite stories are about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Email: shaina.luck@cbc.ca

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