The Riverfront Centre is the first new facility that will open in Trail since the Aquatic Centre was completed in 1996. (Sheri Regnier/Black Press)

Politics and the Trail public library

Trail addresses the politics of public library; challenges with funding and governance

TRAIL — The future of the Trail and District library board and increased use of BC OneCards without increased provincial funding were at the forefront of a recent conversation between Trail and the Ministry of Education.

The ministry’s follow up to the meeting, which took place at the fall UBCM (Union of BC Municipalities) conference, was sent to the city in a letter from Education Minister Rob Fleming.

In his correspondence, Fleming acknowledges the city’s concerns with library governance and its concerns about “current pressures” the public library is facing, such as increased visitor traffic with BC OneCard users.

The ministry provides funding to public libraries for BC OneCards, in Trail’s case the city’s receives $10,250 annually to support the program. That amount remains static no matter how many library-goers use the BC OneCard, the issue being the users can be from anywhere in B.C., or outside the taxpaying area.

That leaves the service’s two municipal funders, Trail and Warfield, to cover respective costs over and above the yearly grant.

“The city has met continually with the Ministry of Education over the last number of years to advance the city’s concerns associated with public libraries,” Trail Mayor Mike Martin began. “And the burden that falls directly on the city especially since the regional library service was dissolved in 2009.”

He says the community is heavily invested and has high expectations for the city’s new integrated library/museum, otherwise called the Riverfront Centre.

“Given the geographical location of the Trail and District library within the Lower Columbia Region, the first concern raised with the minister was the usage of BC OneCards, ” Martin said. “Which is considerably higher than in comparable markets across the province, without any recognition by the ministry of the cost associated with this increased demand on services,” he explained.

“We are asking for some modification to the flat and universal contribution from the province with regard to unique local circumstances.”

Fleming acknowledged the city’s concerns but only offered this written reply, “The BC OneCard is an important component of the provincial resource-sharing program, which extends library service across the province … The Ministry of Education provides funding to all libraries to participate in the BC OneCard … I do encourage you to continue to raise your concerns with the local library board, as they set policies for library operations, including local policies for provincial programs.”

He then strongly advised the city against making changes to the library board and noted the Library Act requires an independent board to govern to a public library.

Fleming added, “I must caution you, dissolution of the board may jeopardize eligibility to receive future provincial funding.”

The Libraries Branch is aware of the city’s concern about the library governance structure, Fleming said.

“However, any changes to legislation are likely to have broad implications that require further research and consultation. I ask you to keep this in mind as you explore options for how to proceed.”

Trail Mayor Mike Martin says the profile of both matters are particularly relevant as council continues to oversee construction and operational aspects of the Riverfront Centre.

“A second topic advanced with the ministry was the matter of the future of library boards,” Martin confirmed.

“The Library Act has not seen any major amendments for decades and this has given cause for concern for council in light of the complexities arising during the development of the operational plans for the Riverfront Centre.”

Council and staff have worked closely with library board and executive director through the design parameters and operational plans and budgets for the new facility, he continued.

“This extensive work brought to the forefront not only the inadequacy of provincial participation in funding but the governing legislation being effective and enabling/facilitating operational success for municipalities of all sizes.”

In this regard, and notwithstanding the extensive work and commitment of the current library board, council is most concerned with the sustainability of the present structure, Martin said.

“And brought to the minister’s attention the potential difficulties the city and surely other communities can face when trying to attract and retain qualified people to sit on a volunteer library board.”

The governance requirements to oversee library operations effectively will only increase with the Riverfront Centre set to open in 2018, Martin pointed out.

“Having said this, the recent call for volunteers for Library Board members from the community has resulted in a promising number of candidates bringing their names forward for consideration, and for this reason, the city is encouraged that at least in the near term some solid continuity is assured.”

The province does provide basic training for new library board members, however, the City of Trail is concerned that the content defining the governance role of the board versus the operational role of staff is not sufficiently communicated.

Martin said. “There remain blurred lines of accountability amongst some board members and staff. This confusion will need to be addressed as further training of new board members is undertaken.”

He emphasized that council is not setting out to dissolve the library board.

“And notwithstanding the current interest of very encouraging candidates, (council) is concerned with how things have been operating and we wanted to explore with the ministry what options might be available to the city in the future,” Martin clarified.

“We believe that the legislation needs to be robust and flexible and yet consider the unique challenges that each community faces as part of delivering efficient and effective library services. In Trail, the new facility creates not only fiscal challenges but operational challenges and council wonders if there is a service delivery model that would better suit the needs of smaller municipalities like Trail.”

A new model should come without the financial penalty … where the ministry indicates that any deviation from the current norm would potentially see provincial grants eliminated, he noted.

“Council would have to weigh any financial loss against any potential benefits.”

Riverfront Center service levels must be balanced against other competing demands within the city’s entire portfolio of services, and apply a reasonable level of funding for the library.

“Recognizing these costs ultimately get passed on to the taxpayer,” Martin explained.

“The first draft of the budget presented by the library board was a significant concern for council and the library board has been asked to revisit the level of funding being sought.”

Budget reviews occur across all departments annually and is part of creating the overall city budget, which aims to provide a balanced delivery of essential and discretionary services to the community-as-a-whole.

“Council is taking a very close look at the service and the various issues that are affecting costs and revenue recovery in the library,” Martin concluded.

“At the end of the day, council represents the constituents of Trail and must establish an appropriate balance with all municipal services, the cost and the final property tax rate that is justified and can be fully rationalized and explained to the public.”

The budget won’t be finalized until May 2018, which buys council and the library board time to plan programs and services before the Riverfront Centre starts operating early next year.

In 2017, the city advertised for library board volunteers twice — in February/March and again in October/November. Typically the city advertises once a year unless vacancies arise mid-term.

Library board members are appointed for a term of two years but are eligible for re-appointment as long as they serve no longer than eight consecutive years, explained Corporate Administrator Michelle McIsaac.

Six Trail residents sit on the board, and their terms are staggered so that three of their terms expire Dec. 31 of Year A and the other three expire in Year B.

“The Library Act requires that we advertise to invite applications for appointments to the library board,” she said. “And because we have three terms expiring every year (even if the members serving wish to be reappointed), we advertise at least annually. I normally arrange this advertising in late October/early November so that the appointments can be considered by council in December.”

The city also advertises if a vacancy arises mid-term, for example, if a board member resigns.

McIssac said that situation arose earlier this year, so it advertised to fill the vacancy.

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