Budget Committee, Feb. 19, 2021
Meeting recap (the important stuff):
This meeting was particularly hard to cover. When the police and library budgets are presented in the same budget meeting it gives a very harsh contrast on what the city says its priorities are compared to how it funds things. This meeting made me a little mad. When these budget meetings started, many councillors made it a point to paraphrase Joe Biden; “don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” In this week’s budget meeting we can see what council values.
In the meeting this week city council approved (in principle) two police budgets collectively worth $118,366,456, and the library budget of $23,330,000.
One of the core tenants of the library is to make sure the people in the community who need or want to use the library have no barriers in doing so. Chief Librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries Åsa Kachan said this principle guided their decision to remove library fines for late books. She said that requiring money to access the library was a huge barrier and one that disproportionately affected people who need the library the most.
Councillor Paul Russell was worried about the fiscal implications of removing a stream of revenue from the (underfunded) library and was also worried that in removing the financial penalty for losing books people would just steal books willy nilly. He suggested perhaps having a ‘read off your fine’ program. But Kachan fired back (fired back is my wording, she was unfailingly positive and polite) saying that when they removed fines a lot of books came back, and people had only ‘lost’ them because they were “afraid” of the fines. The library also used to have a read in lieu of fines program, but it punished people who didn’t have the time to spend in the library. She also pointed out that people still need to pay to replace lost books and that “the more we trust our public and treat them with respect the greater care they take with our materials.”
Kachan also gave a presentation highlighting some of the things the library does for the city. They have handed out 10,000 lunches. Russell asked about barriers to the program, and Kachan said that even registration is a barrier for some people. “We don’t want people to feel shame for being hungry.” They also know there’s a need for internet access so the library have started a pilot program to get internet to people who need it, funded by a partnership with TD Bank and money from the province. Meanwhile, in the police presentation part of the meeting, we learned that half a million municipal tax dollars go to polygraph testing and a police horse and rider.
It’s an embarrassment to our city that we fund bunk science used by a business unit that says it can’t correct anti-Black racism that it perpetrated as laid out in the Wortley report without extra funding. But basic internet access, which is a stated priority of all three levels of government, is funded by TD fucking Bank. Is this really the best we can do? This is the best our councillors can offer us?
The library asked for $50,000 to increase the food programming it’s currently offering and $100,000 to help not quite keep up with the demand for their electronic library. In voting for the latter motion Mancini cautioned councillors that not everything that’s added to the ‘parking lot’ will come to bear. A caution he did not give before voting for the police budget asks.
Both of the library’s asks were added to the ‘parking lot’ and the budget was approved (in principle).
Who said what (paraphrased):
Russell: Almost everyone is here, so onto the library presentation!
Åsa Kachan, Chief Librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries: This budget is within the money envelope we were given by the city. Thanks to everyone who made this possible. We’re in the final year of the strategic plan, our mission was “reflecting our community, we are a resource for everyone and a launch point for growth.” Which feels as true today as it was five years ago. Here’s how we see the work we do:
Kachan: Here are some Library advance stats pre-COVID, then post-COVID:
Kachan: When COVID hit some of our staff took furlough for four months, and we changed how we served our community. We had online library card registration which got us 10,000 new people, getting rid of fines unlocked 37,000 cards, we beefed up our digital holding (ebooks and audiobooks). We boosted our Wi-Fi and created new Wi-Fi spots, handed out lunches, gave out gaming systems. We have creative and caring staff. We called vulnerable people in the community to make sure they were doing okay and talk them through the pandemic. We’re working on removing barriers to the library. We removed library fines, they disproportionately impact people who need us the most. We want people to have a lifelong relationship with the library. We gave everyone $5 of free printing per month per library card. People are printing out government forms and resumes. This year we’re looking at promoting the role arts and cultures play in community wellbeing. We’ll be offering free resources to support the arts. We’re also looking at seeing what new lending ideas we can come up with. We want to be a welcoming and respected “third place” to provide some social infrastructure. We’re doing renovations at the Dartmouth North Library, and we’re going to continue our healthy meals and snacks program.
Kachan: What is the role the Library can play in COVID recovery? Being able to reconnect has a tremendous impact on our community and individual wellbeing. We’re also going to be renovating some interior branches, which are being supported by the capital budget. We talk a lot about community safety, we see ourselves playing an important role in that, we help strengthen the fabric of our society. We need to lend technology and internet access and we need to find a way to get that to people at home, and we know people need the internet when we’re not open. So we’re doing a pilot, that we’re funding from private donations and provincial funding. We’re thinking about how libraries can be used to build knowledge and lead internal and collective responses to the climate emergency. Inclusive communities are critically important, we’re building an Accessibility Advisory Committee, it’s not just about building design, it’s about making sure we’re an accessible and inclusive employer. We’re also working with the Friendship Centre to build programming around reconciliation. We’re working with the community to build local history resources that address the history that is underrepresented or marginalized. The closest library to North Preston used to be Cole Harbour, but we’ve hired three people and are expanding branches into Cherry Brook, North Preston and East Preston.
Kachan: We created a new staff online learning platform due to COVID (by contrast the police asked for the budget to hire a person to do this). We are also developing an internal committee to create an inclusive workplace. Have we framed our policies to take into account different family setups? Different upbringings? Here’s some of our key performance indicators:
Kachan: The red line is average Canadian Library use. Even with COVID we hit the national average (we love the library as a city it seems). Here’s some more stats:
Kachan: My request for the ‘parking lot’ relates back to this, we’re at the cap of our digital budget and the waitlists are long, we’d love more ebooks (BUY THEM ALL THE BOOKS THEY WANT). Our library space per capita is lower than the industry standard and as our population grows we’ll fall further behind. We have 331 employees. Here’s our budget:
Kachan: It’s up by 3.8 per cent due to salaries, and we cancelled our fines. Here’s more numbers:
Kachan: And here are the changes in our budget:
Kachan: We still collect parking fees at the central library, but fewer people are using it. PPE budget is also up. Here are my two requests for the ‘parking lot’:
Kachan: We need more digital resources because we’re below the standard, and they’re more expensive than book books. The book I just read, Barack Obama’s book, we have 65 ebook copies and a waitlist of over 600 people. We have fewer audiobook versions and a waiting list of over a thousand people for it ($100,000 ask for the ‘parking lot’). We also want to increase our food programming. But we need food for that, and we’re adding kitchens to our libraries (cost $50,000). We also have pressures, no budget asks for it this year, but we need to think about it. The demand for lending tech that has internet capability is rising, and right now we’re getting it from TD Bank and the province. It’s anticipated that the demand for this program will exceed the donations we’ve secured. There’s no budget ask (why not library? Demand better, the police do). We’re also going to need more PPE as people come back to the library, we’ve absorbed it into our budget, but we’ll probably need more in the future.
Mancini: *Reads the motion* Anytime I brag about the HRM I brag about our libraries. One of my followers tweeted this:
Mancini: Obviously we can’t give libraries ALL THE MONEY (just give them the police money then). I can’t think of another business unit that has pivoted as well as you have to COVID. You talked about barriers, what are the biggest barriers to our most vulnerable citizens accessing the library?
Kachan: Access to our branches, in some cases it’s because we’ve historically had these 14 branches and that’s been it. Many people find their way to us, but how do we get our services to them? (Can’t get to the library from my house on the weekend without a car, for example) Some people on our team, their whole job is figuring out how to do this. They’re asking ‘who isn’t using the library and how do we get to them?’ We don’t ever give up trying to reach people who don’t know what we offer yet. When we switched to our virtual storytelling we found that people who could never make it into the branch started attending (virtual storytime was a LIFE SAVER during the pandemic for this house). We know how important it is for people to access our services and feel welcome doing so.
Cuttell: The Spryfield library is also going through a renovation?
Kachan: More people took furlough than we anticipated, and we found some branches weren’t very COVID safe, so we took that extra furlough money and made it COVID safe. Now we have a better entrance and an outdoor space. They were founded in COVID safety, but it turned out great.
Cuttell: Was it supposed to be renovated more?
Kachan: Yes, it’s on our list, the floors and stairs aren’t great. They can be designed better. We’ve moved some stuff around to make it a little better immediately though, while we wait.
Cuttell: Spryfield is growing, so we’ll need more library soon. In my district we have rural areas that are hard to service, so I’m excited to hear your plans to extend library services. I know you’re working with community groups to expand these services, so I’d like to find out how we can best support the increased services (it’s money, take it from the police budget, they spend a quarter million dollars on polygraph testing).
Austin: I like that fines were eliminated, and they were disproportionate, if our kids lose a book we can afford to eat a fine and keep access to the library. That’s not true for every household, so I’m happy to see it removed. For us to get the collection where it needs to be it would have cost $1.3 million per year for five years or $6 million all at once, and we can’t do that all at once. I think this is worth doing, our use is above average and our collection is well below average. You’d wait 30 days in Markham, but 60 days in Halifax for the same book. Where are we at in the lobbying effort to the federal government to deal with publishers fleecing (my word) libraries with copyright fees?
Kachan: We’re working with a lobbying firm to see if there’s something we can do and to see if it’s inequitable. We’re also working with publishers to explain to them that we’re not the enemy, they see library books as lost sales (isn’t capitalism great?). They need to understand that people who use the library also buy more books (and one would imagine those that borrow those library books often might not have the cash to buy the book otherwise). And the publishers embargo libraries if the books are on Audible, Amazon’s platform (damn you Bezos!), and the prices are high and sometimes we’re just excluded from ever holding that title (upgrading that to a ‘fuck you Bezos’). There’s an argument to be made that Canadian work shouldn’t be excluded from reaching Canadian audiences. American libraries are also working on this because it comes at a tremendous cost and restricts people’s access to their own culture.
Austin; My last questio-
Russell: You’re out of time.
Austin: I’ll come back.
Kent: I missed some of this presentation, I like the position you’re taking on expanding services to underserved communities. This might be out of order, but the free little libraries popping up in our communities, is that linked in any way to what the city is doing?
Kachan: Those are entirely community initiatives. They’re not always optimal because they’re not watertight sometimes, but I love ‘em. They do similar ones with food, it works well the way it is. It’s not a piece of what we do, but we love that people are encouraging reading.
Kent: *Eastern Passage internet*
Russell: You’re muted.
Outhit: There we go.
Russell: You sound better muted.
Outhit: And I look better with a mask. I’m impressed with the library’s management of COVID. I want to put some things in the ‘parking lot’, main motion first? ‘Parking lot’ first?
Russell: Either is fine.
Outhit: I’ll move the food item, I think it’s a wonderful and needed initiative, happy to move it forward. And I hope it’s supported here and in the ‘parking lot’.
Russell: So we’re talking about moving the food programming to the ‘parking lot’.
Mancini: How do you measure the success of the food programs and know they’re having a positive impact?
Kachan: Interest in the program, and we ask if they like the program, and then we ask if they know more about food after the programming. We also find out if they feel better connected to their communities after the program. We feed 60-90 junior high kids every Friday in Dartmouth, and then they stick around and use the library. We have numbers too, but, that’s how it works.
Mancini: I’m privileged in our house, so I had to learn that if kids are hungry they can’t learn. We should support this.
Deagle-Gammon: I had my name on the list for the main motion, not the ‘parking lot’ motion, do I have to speak on the ‘parking lot’ motion?
Russell: The motion on the floor is to the food programming. (Point of order, new motion, new speakers list, if Deagle-Gammon is only on the main motion speakers list she shouldn’t have been called upon to speak to the ‘parking lot’ item. If she asked to be put on the speakers list for the ‘parking lot’ motion it doesn’t count against her main motion speaking list time. This has been an installation of: The more you know: HRM’s rules of order)
Deagle-Gammon: What locations does the food program operate out of? Do you have a food budget? If so what will this add?
Kachan: Dartmouth North, Halifax North, Sackville is where it all began. Alderney, Central, William Spry has done some with slow cookers and hotplates, and we’re getting provincial money for a kitchen there. There was a time when you need a stove and open flame which we couldn’t do in the library, but the new tech means we can. Preston Townships have had some food programming. We also did e-cooking via zoom (might not have been Zoom). We have $50,000 already for food programming, and we’ve had donations, sometimes several thousand dollars, to put to food programming (why are so many essential services funded by private money?)
Deagle-Gammon: Have you reached out to grocery stores?
Kachan: Yes, we tap what money we can, and we’ve gotten provincial money. This money is the core money for certainty, but we always are reaching out for additional resources. We’re a registered charity so that helps.
Cleary: On the food program, you mentioned donations, and you’re not collecting fines, is there a way to set up a donation in lieu of fines for folks who can afford it?
Kachan: It’s something we talked about, and promoted the fact that they could if they wanted. So we do get donations that way. We’re working on a donate button for the library screen.
Russell: I saw that you served 10,000 meals, what barriers are in place to prevent people from getting food? They just need to get there?
Kachan: Sometimes it’s a program people sign up for, but we’re trying to make food accessible as part of their library experience. We try and make it not complicated like putting food on a table outside of the door. The minute you add anything, even registration, it makes it complicated. We don’t want people to feel shame for being hungry. When people are hungry conflicts are more likely to happen, so it’s also about making sure the time we spend together is positive time together (did I expect to be crying in a budget meeting? No. No I did not, but here we are).
Russell: If people are hungry it makes everything more difficult. I’m in support of this.
Cuttell: The food project is so important. I want to look at the bigger picture, and there are a lot of community programs that do food delivery and get food to people. When we look at the individual programs, has anyone done an accounting of all our food programing as a whole? From the library perspective, are you teaming up with local community partners?
Kachan: We work as part of the Halifax Food Policy Alliance. There are a lot of people trying to solve a large problem. Here’s an example of how they dovetail though: the mobile food pack comes to the library in Spryfield, we’ll find out what’s in the pack and tailor our programming to the ingredients. Parsnips in the pack? We’ll teach people how to cook them that week. That’s one example.
Cuttell: $50,000 isn’t a lot for a food program (it’s one-fifth of a year’s worth of HRP polygraph testing).
Russell: The question!
M/S/C – Vote – Aye – Austin, Mancini, Mason, Smith, Cleary, Morse, Cuttell, Stoddard, Lovelace, Deagle-Gammon, Hendsbee, Kent, Purdy – Abstain – Savage (absent)
Russell: Main motion.
Deagle-Gammon: The libraries of today are a far cry of what I grew up with in rural Cape Breton. Is there an infographic or graphic that shows us the reach of the libraries that can show us where we’re not present? I’m happy to see the virtual use, but we have internet deserts in rural HRM, so how do we make sure the library is accessible to them? I’m having a bit of virtual fatigue and can’t wait to hold a physical book again. When we say library they think one building, if we say libraries it’s more inclusive.
Morse: I could also gush at length about the libraries. Can you comment a bit more on the digital divide? It came to my attention that we have a digital divide because an 80 year old man phoned me and told me he didn’t have and couldn’t afford a computer and didn’t know how to use them. He wanted to go for a skate, but couldn’t figure out how to look up the times.
Kachan: It’s an important equity question, and those of us who have several devices forget that it’s not everyone’s experience. We do a lot of one on one technical teaching, we’ll teach people everything from how to turn it on to using the various apps and functions. We need to bridge that for sure. We have rural areas that do not have reliable broadband access, so that’s an issue, and Develop Nova Scotia has that in their mandate. And it’s also true for people who live in poverty, the internet and devices are expensive. So many of the basic activities, like getting a fishing license, require both literacy and technical literacy. It’s much broader than most of us realize.
Russell: Overdue fines, there was forgiveness for overdue fines, there were 4.4 million items borrowed, and even being closed for COVID we only dropped down to the national average of visits. But fines, how much revenue was lost and how many times were fines forgiven?
Kachan: 34,000 people got their access back, fine revenue 10 years ago was 320,000, it was 200,000 in 19/20 and we were expecting 100,000 this year. But fines are dropping anyway because staff are encouraged to be compassionate. We used to be tight on fines, can’t pay, can’t borrow. Then we had a fine amnesty, then we had our staff ask if the fine could be paid and drop it if they couldn’t but the conversations themselves could be a barrier. And when you think about it our collection belongs to everyone in the city, should we really be withholding people’s access to something that belongs to them? If they belong to the people they should be in the hands of the people. And who’s most likely to get a fine? With respect to the lost revenue, a lot of the fines sat on our books and were never collected because the person never came back. So you can’t assume we’d see the fine.
Russell: Part of what I’m concerned about is what if someone borrows a book and then doesn’t bring it back, and the loss of collection. I’m not concerned about the loss of money from the fines. I saw a strategy where people could pay off their fines by reading for an hour (this is a barrier for people who don’t have time, to assume everyone would have time to do this is a form of implicit bias and demonstrating parts of the privilege of your life). It’s a hybrid and could be considered for a future fine model if it comes back.
Kachan: We had a read-away your fines program and encouraged people to read, but some families can stay put in the libraries and some can’t. So it’s about understanding who uses the library. If someone borrows an item that’s not returned there’s a cost to replace it, but there’s no fine for it being late. People presume that people will take things away and never come back, but we’ve found the more we trust our public and treat them with respect the greater care they take with our materials. And when we got rid of fine so many books came back people weren’t afraid of returning them.
Russell: I’m out of time. Mancini.
Mancini: The electronic resources, we’re behind other jurisdictions, what does the $100,000 do for our collection? Are we still behind? What happens if you don’t get the $100,000?
Kachan: The $100,000 doesn’t bring us close to bridging the gap, our population is growing and electronic books cost more than their print counterparts. Physical books are $15, the electronic book is about $100. It adds a little bit, but it’s really just holding what we have.
Mancini: What would it take to close the gap?
Kachan: We crunched the numbers last year, and $6.6 million over five years to close the gap. But that doesn’t even take into account that more people use our library than other cities. It’s a wonderful and difficult problem to face.
Mancini: We have this conversation about every year about the growth in our population vs what we’re spending. I’ll put the motion on the floor for the ebooks. I support this to go to the ‘parking lot’. But I caution our colleagues, we still need to be fiscally responsible (you added $145,800 to the ‘parking lot’ from the HRP budget), and we’ll see what happens in the ‘parking lot’. As much as I want this, will it stay? I don’t know what else will be on that list.
Austin: I thoroughly support putting this in the ‘parking lot’. Last year we topped this up to $250,000 which is ongoing I think. The library also was able to put additional money into this area, how much?
Kachan: $65,000, year to date. Imagine our collection librarians have a full shopping cart in online shopping and anytime they see money in the budget they buy stuff. The minute our doors closed and the demand was going to shift to, the board made a motion to get $240,000 out of restricted money knowing we were at the end of the budget and would need to pivot. We hear it from our community, we wand the breadth of the collection and low wait times for popular titles.
Austin: We should at least be at the benchmark across the country, our usage is a lot higher so our collection should probably be above average too, we’re not going to solve this in one year, but we need to continue to chip away at this.
Russell: Can you read this motion into the record, Mancini?
Mancini: *Reads motion*
M/S/C – Vote – Aye – Unanimous
Russell: Passes, it’s in the ‘parking lot’, and I have no speakers, question?
M/S/C – Vote – Aye – Unanimous
Russell: No further motions, adjourn?
Councillor Paul Russell, Chair (District 15)
Deputy Mayor Tim Outhit (District 16)
Councillor Kathy Deagle-Gammon (District 1)
Councillor David Hendsbee (District 2)
Councillor Becky Kent (District 3)
Councillor Trish Purdy (District 4)
Councillor Sam Austin (District 5)
Councillor Tony Mancini (District 6)
Councillor Waye Mason (District 7)
Councillor Lindell Smith (District 8)
Councillor Shawn Cleary (District 9)
Councillor Kathryn Morse (District 10)
Councillor Iona Stoddard (District 12)
Councillor Pam Lovelace (District 13)
N/A – COVID
Previous meeting and current agenda:
A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.
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