City declines municipal library request

Fort St. John city council has declined a request from the Fort St. John Public Library to become a municipal library, saying the provincial Library Act first needs to be modernized.

The library is operated and governed as a non-profit association, and sought the municipal designation last year as it struggles to sustain its finances and maintain programs.

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The city is the library’s largest single funder, providing a $397,000 grant-in-aid in each of the last three years. 

However, council expressed concerns Monday with an outdated provincial Library Act, noting that if the city absorbed the library and its financial obligations, control of its activities and strategies would still fall to an independent board.

“They’re all led by locally established autonomous boards as legislated by the act,” Mayor Lori Ackerman said. “Our assumption was that they would become a department of our community services, or department of public works, or anything like that. That is not the case. They would not be answerable to our council.”

The library sees more than 80,000 visitors each year, pandemic notwithstanding, and costs about $750,000 to operate. It is forecasting a $119,624 deficit for 2021, after posting deficits in each of the last three years that have drawn down its cash reserves.

Coun. Gord Klassen echoed the mayor's concerns, and said the city needed to lobby the province to modernize the legislation.

“For us to take on significant additional costs to operate it as a municipal library and not have any opportunity to direct the operations and the goals and the strategies just … doesn’t make sense,” Klassen said. “It just seems odd that we would fund something and not have any say in it. I don't think we can do that."

“The Library Act restricts what we can do, so unless that is changed we’re still going to be stuck where we are,” Klassen said.

Council voted Monday to advocate for changes, and declined the library's request until it's modernized. It also voted to host discussions with other jurisdictions about creating a regional library function under the Local Government Act.

The library has requested a $437,000 grant-in-aid from the city this year, and at its Jan. 11 meeting council approved a $50,000 advance to help its operations.

Jan. 25 report to council notes the city could consider increasing its grant-in-aid, "however it should be ensured that this decision is made in the context of what will be a challenging 2021 budget," CAO Milo Macdonald wrote. 

Macdonald said the library is "a regional service with regional implications," and could lose funding from other jurisdictions it serves if it were to become a municipal library.

"It may be more fruitful to consider partnerships with other local governments in the area to provide sustainability while distributing the financial obligations across the appropriate taxpayers in the region," Macdonald wrote.

The library has received $110,500 in yearly funding from Areas B and C of the PRRD over the past three years, and also relies on federal and provincial grants, as well as self-generating income such as fundraising for its revenues. Only Area C, which includes the Baldonnel, Old Fort, and Charlie Lake areas, has committed its $65,000 share as a budgetary line item, council said.

Coun. Tony Zabinsky said the library is best suited as a regional library. 

“We really have to have a discussion with other jurisdictions,” said Zabinsky. “There’s still jurisdictions out there that don’t see the value of the library and still don’t want to participate in the library, hence they’re running into a budgetary problem.” 

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca. 

[Disclosure: Managing Editor Matt Preprost is a Trustee of the Fort St. John Public Library Association.]

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