While the NOTL Public Library is willing to help the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake solve its revenue problem, it had not planned to give 75 per cent of its $100,000 surplus back to supplement the town’s operating budget.
“It was not ever our suggestion or first choice,” said Daryl Novak, chair of the library board, during a request to council last week for a reduction in the amount returned.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake library requested the town only take 50 per cent of its surplus, so the rest could go toward the library’s capital reserve, which is projecting a deficit. However, councillors narrowly voted to take the full 75 per cent, which helped to reduce the town’s tax levy increase.
In an interview Monday, Novak said while library board members are not angry, they are “a little disappointed” in the town's decision to claw back $75,000 of its surplus, which came largely from being fiscally responsible in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The move was sort of “smoke and mirrors,” Novak said, with the town reducing the library's grant money equal to 75 per cent of the surplus, since it doesn't have the power to ask for the surplus money.
“Where it's a bit smoke and mirrors is the municipality cannot take the surplus away from us, legally, and they can't actually instruct us how to spend it. But there's nothing that says that the municipality can't reduce our operating grant,” he said.
“So, basically they're saying, 'Just for this year we're going to reduce your operating grant, by a number which happens to be equivalent to 75 per cent of your surplus. And the rest is up to you, library.' “
Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who cast the tie-breaking vote in favour of denying the library’s request, said while she’s always been a supporter of the library, but this year is different and everyone needs to work together.
“I have never, ever refused in my tenure on this council to give money to the library board and even when it impacted other projects for the town, I've always been very supportive of the library board,” she said.
“I’m hopeful that in the long run they will understand and they will continue to believe that they can come to us when they need to and we will be there for them,” Disero said.
“But we need their help now, and it would be a completely different story if this was coming from a source of revenue that did not have an impact (on taxpayers), but this is coming directly from the tax levy.”
She pointed out the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum returned 100 per cent of its surplus back to the town in the same fashion through a reduced grant, while the town itself also gave 75 per cent of its surplus back to the operating budget.
While the town has said the change will not affect the library's grant next year, the concern Novak and library board members have is that the impacts of COVID-19 aren't known for 2021. They fear if town revenues continue to decline, the library won't get its full funding in 2022 either.
“What happens if the parking revenues don't come back? What happens if the municipality is in a difficult situation next year? It will make it just that much harder for us to be able to request what we need for the year, but also to deal with these issues that we were having around the capital reserves,” Novak said.
He said he trusts council will contribute the full grant next year.
“Councillors have been very good about saying, 'No, no, no, we understand that this is just a one-time reduction in your allocation. It's not that next year we're gonna say, 'Well, you know, last year they got (X), well that's their new base,' ” he said.
“It's not for a second that I think anybody's going to pull a fast one,” he said.
The town originally wanted to decrease their grant by the full $100,000 surplus, Novak said.
“Then it came down to, 'Well, you know, you'll keep 25 per cent of the surplus.' So we thought, alright, let's show willing. It wasn't our first choice but acting as team players if the municipality is having a real cash crunch etc., let's suggest that we keep 50 per cent.”
“That suggestion was rebuffed.”
Looking back, the library could have spent some of the funds on equipment earlier, he said.
“If we weren't showing a significant surplus, there would have been no question and no issue about the allocation for this coming year,” he said.
Novak pointed out a Deloitte service review of the town in July identified the library as one of just two town areas that is performing above standard.
He also noted the library was the only town appendage to make staff cuts.
“That was what created most of the surplus. And now the town is saying thank you very much, we'll reduce your allocation based on that.”
According to the budget report for 2021, the Town of NOTL now has 107 full-time staff members and is expected to hire out 73,696 contract hours in 2021, compared with 76,655 in 2020.
Novak said despite being disappointed, there's no “bad blood.”
“Nobody's screaming, nobody's being mean to each other. It's just unfortunate purely because we're concerned about what the municipality's income is going to be next year, and we could have looked after ourselves a bit more if we had not been told that our grant this year was going to be reduced.”
“Our capital reserves are a little on the tight side. Really, we didn't have a lot of money,” Novak said.
Library an important tool for residents during pandemic, board member Robin Williams says
Having an accessible public library is essential to the health and well-being of the community, library board trustee Dr. Robin Williams told council during the budget presentation.
Williams, a pediatrician and public health expert, said the library is essential “social infrastructure” for the town and residents who are handling the pandemic differently.
“We are living in incredible times, I don't need to tell you that, and some are faring better than others. There's no question,” she said.
“We're even starting to hear not only about a second wave and a third wave of COVID, but a fourth wave, which is about the longstanding shadow that this pandemic is causing on mental health for families, for kids, for older seniors, etc.”
Williams is also acting as a special adviser at the province on COVID matters.
“So I'm living and breathing COVID,” she said. “And I have to remind myself that we can't get lost in the present. We need to stay focused also on the future because there will be a future, we will get beyond this.”
She said she thinks the library will be “a significant player in the social and the economic recovery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
Libraries have shifted and adapted over time, and the focus is “more than keeping the magic of reading alive,” she added.
She noted the library offers access to ideas and resources, connections to people and virtual programming.