Calgary libraries face budget squeeze

Don’t waste taxpayer dollars on tunnel warns alderman

As Calgary’s public libraries brace for severe budget cuts a retiring alderman says the upcoming municipal election will be a litmus test for candidates and voters who will have tough choices including building libraries or an airport tunnel.

“If you want to spend money on things like a tunnel that aren’t needed then you’re going to affect services that we do need like libraries” says Ald. Joe Ceci who is about to retire from city politics after five terms on council. “And forget about getting a new public library downtown because there’s not going to be money for that.”

Calgary Public Library officials announced they are facing a $3-million shortfall in 2011. Library CEO Gerry Meek says the institution which runs on a $40.6 million budget may slash operating hours close Sundays year-round and delay the opening of new facilities.

Earlier this year the city revealed it was facing a $60-million revenue shortfall. City managers ordered department heads to freeze hiring and look for ways to make cuts.

The cuts will hit Calgary libraries particularly hard threatening several expansion and construction projects already underway including Signal Hill and Saddletowne branches says Meek.

“We were always planning for the money to be there” he says. “Unfortunately with this cut there are no operating funds to run Saddletowne.”

Adding insult to injury is that libraries were expecting an additional $500000 in special funding from the city — a reward for running a tight ship on its budget. “The irony is that also is in jeopardy” says Meek.

As well the $3-million shortfall could be a lowball figure. In July city council voted to exempt the police department’s three-year $800 million budget — the single largest cost to the city — from cuts. This means austerity measures for Calgary libraries and other city departments could worsen when council reconvenes in November to hammer out the budget details.

This doesn’t bode well in the battle against illiteracy say library advocates.

A recent report from the Canadian Council on Learning says 48 per cent of Canadians are struggling to understanding written material — a figure likely to grow over the next 20 years largely driven by increased immigration and an aging population.

Countering this starts at an early age says Dariel Bateman associate director of Calgary Reads. “Children who do not become competent readers by Grade 3 struggle for the rest of their school careers” she says.

Literacy boosts confidence self-sufficiency and gives people a better grasp on political issues encourages them to engage in civic discourse says Bateman.

“Any time library services have to be cut or potentially cut it is just tragic” she says.

While library usage is increasing financial support per capita lags far behind other Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto. “They’re somewhere in the $60 range” says Meek. “We’re in the $30 range.”

Email: thowell@ffwd.greatwest.ca