By Trevor Busch
Philosophical debate over charging library membership fees overshadowed the Taber Public Library’s town funding request for the 2017-2019 operating budget.
The Taber Public Library is requesting identical funding for each year from the Town of Taber of $229,463. However, the library is seeking a marginal increase from the M.D. of Taber in 2018-2019, including $10,500 (2017), $10,800 (2018), and $11,000 (2019).
“For the public library, we’re still asking for the same amount of money as we did back in 2015,” said library board treasurer Cindy Varga, who spoke at town council’s Oct. 11 regular meeting as part of a two-member delegation, which included vice chair Pat Bremner. “We’re still keeping no fees for membership, it’s all free of charge.”
This phase out of charging a membership fee in recent years prompted Coun. Joe Strojwas to question this action on the part of the library board.
“Ladies, I think you indicated that you’re not charging for fees again this year, and you didn’t last year. Did you find because you didn’t charge fees that your usership increased dramatically? It did, so that’s a bonus. What percentage would you say it increased because you didn’t charge?”
Bremner indicated the elimination of a fee structure has done a lot to bring in new faces making use of the facility.
“Less than 10, but higher than five (per cent). What changed, I would say, is the children coming in with their families on Saturdays. They come into the library, the kids get books and movies, and everybody goes home to have their Saturday night. That changed significantly. Instead of just mom coming in to get a book, the whole family comes in.”
Strojwas continued to probe for a figure from the delegation.
“So what does this mean for your revenue? What kind of hit do you take on your revenue because you didn’t charge fees?”
Varga admitted that in the larger picture, loss of membership fee revenue does not represent a significant impact to the library’s bottom line.
“Not a lot. Around $10,000, which isn’t a lot of money, but we’ve still got it in reserves. As long as we’ve got that reserve there, we shouldn’t be asking for more money.”
Bremner pointed out it is hard to put a price on the value of literacy, and the dividends this can pay in enhancing the skills and education of citizens.
“It’s a bit of a philosophical question. Yes, we can make revenue by charging. But should we be charging for literacy? And that’s a philosophical question, and I come out on the end of no we should not — it should be accessible and democratic for everybody. I know a membership fee is little, but the free brings people in, and the more people come in, the more they’re exposed to any kind of learning that we can offer them.”
This response appeared to be unsatisfactory for Strojwas, who expostulated the theory that because many people today expect to be charged a user fee for services, they should be charged a user fee.
“And I follow, and I understand that, but I think in today’s society people expect that there should be a user fee for everything, because if the town didn’t have user fees… you have to be able to subsidize your costs. I appreciate the fact that you have some goals and some money set aside, but over my years, I’ve found that people appreciate things more when there is a slight user fee, than when it’s free.”
Bremner countered this opinion with the growing evidence that eliminating a membership fee for public libraries was quickly becoming a best practice in Alberta.
“There is again that democratic and philosophical question. It is the move in major libraries, including Calgary and Edmonton, to have no fee. It’s a societal move. It’s not like we jumped on the band wagon and made this decision. Edmonton and Calgary made it at the same time. We do have donations, people donate,” said Bremner.
“And I would like to encourage people to donate even more. But it’s sort of like saying what value can you put on a swimming pool? Well you can’t really put on a value, because you can’t project down forty years and see how many heart attacks, or how much obesity, or diabetes may have been eliminated or lessened because you had a daily exercise program. So it’s the same thing with not charging. But how do we gain? It’s kind of in limbo. You kind of have to go on the philosophy of it.”
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux was supportive of Bremner’s argument over the issue.
“I just want to mention that studies have shown that for every dollar that’s put into the library, the community gets three dollars back. So we are gaining one way or another. Right now 60 per cent of Alberta does not pay membership fees for libraries. I don’t see it going away any time soon actually.”
Although largely unquantifiable in a strict financial sense, Bremner agreed that the role of public libraries goes far beyond a narrow fiscal viewpoint.
“Three dollars back into the community, studies show that, but it’s very intangible. How do you get what you get? You get it through literacy, through better employment, because you’re more literate. Computer literacy. Kids coming in, keeping the kids off the street — we certainly have kids that run a little wild in there, but they’re not smoking dope in the back. That’s a huge thing, to have kids in a safe environment where they can learn. And feel positive about learning.”
Total revenue for the next three years is estimated at $344,870 (2017), $351,249 (2018), and $356,830 (2019). Total expenses are identical to the above figures for all three years.
“We are at the end of recruiting for a new manager, our current manager is retiring after years of dedicated service,” said Bremner. “And so with this new role, we’ll always have change. So we expect to have different programs. We have an extremely good candidate that we have our eyes on. We accepted Diane’s — who is our current manager — resignation with great reluctance and sadness, because she’s very dedicated and she did a bang up job. But then, it’s the coin you’re dealt with, so you have to look on the other side and see what’s there. That’s opportunity.”
Town membership numbers for the library currently sit at a total of 740, while membership numbers among M.D. of Taber residents are a total of 213.
At their Oct. 11 regular meeting, town council voted unanimously to receive for information a request for funding from the Taber Public Library, for consideration in the Town of Taber 2017-2019 operating budget deliberations.
“That sounds positive and exciting,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger. “I hope you make the right choice. It’s always good to see new, fresh blood, and do things different, and times change.”