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The Future of the Whitchurch Stouffville Public Library

January 9, 2013

Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, January 8, 2013

Since moving to Whitchurch-Stouffville almost seven years ago, I have seen our little community grow by 72% (24,390 to 42,000). We are the third fastest growing municipality in Canada, with over 200 new residents arriving each month. This growth has presented our public library with enormous challenges and opportunities, with an average of 142 new library members each month since 2006.

In this context I have been extremely impressed with the commitment and creativity of the Staff and Library CEO to adapt with very limited resources, but also to embrace outreach services as the critical and core element of their mission. The 2011 Canadian Census has told us that we are now a community rich in languages and immigrants, as well as rich in children. For our residents new to Canada or just new to our community, the library has become the town’s “commons” where all feel welcome to browse, learn and meet.

Yet since 2006, our per capita library funding has dropped to the point where we now rank last among sixteen comparable Ontario communities (BMA 2011, p. 152). Since 2007, expansion of our current library facility (built for our town’s 2001 population) has been postponed annually by Council—including, as it seems, this year as well. The Library CEO has highlighted annually (see the Budget Reports 2009, 2010, and 2011) the significant threats that this situation poses for community sustainability—intellectual, social, cultural and economic. How did we get into this predicate so fast?

Whitchurch-Stouffville Library Programs

First, it is important to say that the Library CEO, Staff and Board have and are still doing incredible work in the community on the tightest of budgets.

While adult programming is extremely limited because of space, the Staff has eagerly brought the library into community. Through the Books on Wheels service, not only are Senior’s residences visited, but also high schools, where students have been shown how to access the Library’s e-resources with their electronic devices. The weekly pre-school library services to day-cares, for example, has also been very successful in the promotion of early literacy and in building bridges to families who do not frequent public libraries or who are new to the community.

Over the past years this work has borne wonderful fruit. In particular, the Children’s Summer Reading Program has proven to be enormously successful: 34,000 titles read in Summer 2011.

Over the course of a year, the library runs (incredibly) some 718 programs (2010). This is what a town full of newcomers has found welcoming, orienting and needful: in that same year, these programs attracted over 16,783 participants—a much higher participation rate than the provincial average. Moreover, well over half of residents have become “active” library patrons.

Evolving Role of the Library

Second, over the last decade or two we have seen an evolution of the role of the library in our community and province. Twenty years ago our town’s economy did not require high literacy rates; manufacturing and farming were the largest employment sectors and the library played its respective role in the community.

But Whitchurch-Stouffville’s economy is changing as manufacturing declines. Now the strategic economic development plans of both our town and region explicitly stress the need for developing knowledge-based industries. In these plans the Library is critical for attracting the “creative class” and their businesses to the community, as well as for convening, networking and resourcing them. The Library’s recent organization of a local “Jane’s Walk” or its presence at and promotion of a recent “TED Event” (Technology, Entertainment and Design) are for me two wonderful examples which embody that newer role our Library in this community.

The accomplishments of the Library Staff, CEO and Board on behalf of our community during these last six years of unprecedented community growth and change are highly commendable. This has happened while Town Council’s has stood pat with library expansion plans and appropriate per capita library funding.

Facility and Space Needs

In May 2012, Town Council commissioned and received a current and future library space needs study/report. The report recognized how a modern library with space for gathering, creativity and certain services (not just for books) contributes to a town’s prosperity and well-being. It also recognized what library users in town have known for years: our library space is far too limited for our community’s needs.

Though built only twelve years ago, the present library was never designed for growth. The Town’s consultants suggest a minimum of 0.65 square-feet per capita (significantly less than provincial standards). In 2001 we had a population of 22,008; multiplied by 0.65 equals 14,305 square feet. The current library, built in 2001, is only 13,715 square feet in size, however.By 2006, the town’s population had begun to mushroom; the newly re-elected mayor, Wayne Emmerson, “admitted that there may be some ‘glitches’ in about a year until facilities come on board” (Sun-Tribune, Feb. 1, 2007). Councillors Smith and Hilton indicated concern about the “soft services” and the community’s “social” infrastructure, like the library. The new Council’s first Capital Forecast (2007) slated library expansion for 2009. The Library CEO indicated that if building expansion is not possible until 2009, “increased demand in the short term can be accommodated by current staff.”

Loss of vision

The “glitches” to these good intentions arrived on schedule: by July 2007 the Mayor was expressing concern to the Library Board about “public expectations for an expanded library.” In the 2008 Budget, expansion was postponed to 2010; in the 2009 Budget postponed to 2012; and in the 2010 Budget to 2014. In 2011, the Library Board recommended construction for 2013, but was advised by Councillor Hilton that this would not receive Council support. In January 2013 (Sun-Tribune), the same Council as elected in 2006 admitted that they are ready to “stand pat” on major projects until their term in office is completed in October 2014 (Councillor Ferdinands). “We cannot afford to do everything at once and still live within our means,” noted Councillor Smith. Councillor Bartley is however “eagerly anticipating all things sports in 2013.” The Mayor has ear-marked $250,000 in the 2013 Town budget for a skateboard park (a further $175,000 will be raised privately in the community).

It is has become clear over the years that library expansion has not been about money or respect for the taxpayer, but the fruit of a particular vision and set of priorities. If expansion plans must wait for the first budget year of a new Mayor and Council (2015), building cannot realistically be completed until 2016-17 – a full decade after the need for expansion had become apparent. That’s quite a “glitch.”

High School students vote with their feet

In 2012, a 17-year old member of the Mayor’s Youth Council stated publicly that the library is “not keeping pace.” The student “makes the 25-minute trip to Angus Glen library in Markham because the Stouffville library doesn’t offer as much space or resources” (Sun-Tribune, Feb. 9, 2012).

This anecdotal comment reflects the data-based conclusions of the May 2012 "Current and Future Space Requirements Report”—not just about space, but about resources and staffing (p. 8):

• "Financial: The total operating revenue and total operating expenses per capita for WSPL were significantly lower than the average of the comparison libraries."

• "Staffing: Overall there are significantly fewer full-time equivalents at the WSPL than the average for the comparison libraries (9.91 for WSPL and 20.02 for the others."

Disconnect between Library Board and Council

In 2011 I had made the case before Council -- based on provincial library statistics and the BMA Municipal Studies -- that our library expenditures were “43-per-cent below the provincial average in per-person library expenditures for communities of the same size” (Sun-Tribune, July 8, 2011). The Mayor and the Town’s Director of Finance were quoted as saying that "that is not the case," and that my numbers were "definitely wrong."

In response, former Library Board Chair John Relph wrote a public letter (Sun-Tribune, July 21, 2011) which chronicled a long-term unwillingness on the side of Town Council to keep funding consistent with growth. The Library Board came with “hat in hand each year,” but “the councillors appointed to the library board set the tone by telling us to keep budget increases as minimal as possible. This has been a consistent trend.”

The 2009 “SWOT Analysis” undertaken by then Chairperson Relph identified the following “key weaknesses” and “key threats”:

• Limited space for both materials and programs

• Continuous under-funding affecting staffing and resources

• Lack of shared vision with Council

• Financial constraints of public money

• Disconnect/lack of shared vision between library board/staff and municipal council/staff

Comparing “Apples to Apples”

The consequences of ten dysfunctional years have been nothing short of devastating for library funding, staffing, and materials.

Our 2011 per capita funding for the library was $23 per year, which is by far the lowest of sixteen libraries in Ontario communities our size (we are now 48% below the average of $44 per capita; BMA Municipal Study 2011, p. 152).

Are we really comparing “apples to apples”? Staffing, which is the largest part of any library budget, tells the story. When compared to libraries across the province similar to our own (as in the consultant’s report), or to libraries in towns of a similar size (as in the provincial library statistics or the BMA Study), or to other York Region libraries, or to our neighbouring Durham Region libraries, the Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library is consistently in last position with regard to staffing in each of those groupings. The average of all thirty communities in those groups is one full time staff equivalent for 2158 residents; in Whitchurch-Stouffville it is one for 3346 (or 55% below the average). The provincial guideline is one staff person per 2000 capita population served.

With regard to the materials budget, we are in twenty-fourth position among those thirty communities, spending $3.32 per capita on new materials, compared to an average of $4.61.

After almost eight years of giving the library a cold shoulder with respect to funding--and therefore also staffing, materials and space--a change of heart within the mandate of this council is unlikely. The library has had no one on Council who successfully championed the cause of the library.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

There is still a slight glimmer of hope. Despite years of neglect, the Library CEO, Staff and Board manage well. We also have a patient and resilient community. The business leaders have also indicated the importance of a robust library for attracting the “creative class” and developing knowledge-based industries in our town.

Finally in the past days Councillor Rob Hargrave and one other councillor have indicated to me their willingness to give one final push for expansion plans to be developed in 2013 and possible construction in 2014. This, however, will require a majority decision (four Councillors, or three plus the Mayor) at the Special Budget Meeting on January 22, 2013, 2 p.m. Each resident should contact their Councillor and the Mayor to discuss with them the importance of a healthy, “at-least-average” library in our community.

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