Thursday night, during what can only be described, counter intuitively, as a raucous library board meeting, Toronto Public Library Board members voted overwhelmingly not to close the Urban Affairs Library at Metro Hall.
The closure and a number of other cuts were proposed by City Librarian Jane Pyper’s office in order to reduce TPL’s budget, in accordance with the expectations of Mayor Ford’s administration, who have promised fiscal savings without “major cuts.”
The decision isn’t final.
Once the library votes on a budget, it goes to city council for approval, and so what the thirteen-member board (consisting of eight citizen members and five city councillors) actually did Thursday was make the Urban Affairs Library the City’s to close. As a result, if the mayor or any other member of council would like to shutter the branch, they’re going to have to take deliberate measures to make that happen. The matter could eventually come to a vote at council, in which case any local politician who was in favour of doing the deed would need to go on record as a library branch shutterer.
Shutting down the library would save TPL a net one hundred thousand dollars in 2011, after closure expenses. In 2012, the branch’s non-existence would save an additional $629,000. If closed, its collection of reference materials related to Toronto’s city government would be moved to the Toronto Reference Library in fall 2011.
The closure was part of a package of cuts and efficiencies considered at Thursday’s board meeting.
Paradoxically, the most expensive single thing about keeping the Urban Affairs Library open is the $436,000 rent on its space in Metro Hall, which TPL pays—you guessed it—to the City. When questioned by a board member as to whether the City might forgive the rent, enabling the branch to continue operating at a fraction of its previous cost, Pyper said that: “the City has indicated that they do in fact rent space for their staff at other locations, which they would not need to do if this space was available.” So somewhere, somehow, the City would find a way to recover that money. In theory.
Condo towers, like these near Front and Spadina, are home to the area residents making increasing use of the Urban Affairs branch. Photo by Reza Vaziri from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Every seat in the board room was occupied for the meeting. Deputants included a man named Devendra Sharma who stood up to scold the board for not starting on time as they waited for quorum, and then, during his appointed speaking time, spoke with his back turned to them, “because they are deaf.” Former mayor John Sewell delivered an eminently reasonable speech in which he called the Urban Affairs Library “a real jewel” and credited it with helping him research each of the books he’s written. Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), also speaking as a deputant, came out with the night’s most polished rhetoric: “When you see a library opening, it’s always announced as a major service improvement,” he told the board. “How can you close a library and have it not be a major service cut?” It was an attempt to characterize the proposed closure as a violation of Ford’s promise to keep services intact.
“Thank you, Adam Vaughan!” said Sharma, applauding.
“But you ran against me last time, [in 2006],” said Vaughan.
“And I’m glad you won.”
Pyper, despite a battery of leading questions by board member Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, never called the budget reductions “major cuts.” If she had, she would have been quoted as saying so both here and in the Star (the other media outlet we spotted in the room), and might have made an enemy of Mayor Ford. And so if it is her personal opinion that the proposed cuts are major—and we can’t say what her personal opinion might be—it may be better for TPL that she kept that to herself.
In the end, it was Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) who introduced the amendment that removed the Urban Affairs closure and several other proposed cuts from the budget recommendation. “I’m not prepared to cut services in the library to deal with the budget in the City,” she said.
The only hands raised in opposition to the item as amended belonged to Councillors Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) and Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport)—Councillors Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) and Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West) voted with Davis’s motion.
Critics will no doubt point out that this was a great deal of agitation over a tiny library, and they will be correct. Urban Affairs is hidden inside Metro Hall, with no street frontage. It was originally conceived as a reference library for City staff and other researchers, but its use statistics have increased over the past decade, owing to condo construction in the area and service improvements at TPL. It now amounts to a small but growing neighbourhood branch. Another area neighbourhood branch, at Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard, is planned, but isn’t scheduled to be completed, said Pyper, until 2014.
In the meantime, the Urban Affairs Library remains open. Inside, on Thursday morning, the silence was near total. A few patrons sat and read, others used free Wi-Fi on their laptops, and still others used the library’s own public computer terminals. One disheveled guy just wandered all the aisles, smiling.
Dan Lawrence, who lives in the neighbourhood, came to the library to do some IT and project management research. He visits about once a week. “I live about a seven-minute walk from here,” he said. He hadn’t heard about the library’s situation.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the Reference Library,” he said.
Some of the other efficiencies considered and approved by the library board at Thursday’s meeting, and the amounts of budget relief they’ll provide in 2011, according to library staff:
- Collections management efficiency: $325,000
- Lower-than-expected employee benefit costs: $300,000
- Other budgetary efficiencies, like cutting down on printing and collecting more late fees due to increased circulation: $444,000
Budget measures rejected by the board, and the amounts they would have saved in 2011:
- Integrating periodicals into subject sections at the Toronto Reference Library: $229,000
- Eliminating the library budget’s economic adjustment, for the fourth consecutive year: $313,000
- Total board-approved library budget for 2011: $171,484,000
- Total percentage increase that number represents over the 2010 budget: 2.6%
- Original percentage increase requested by library staff, before the board meeting: 2.2%
- Percentage increase needed to maintain existing library service levels, as estimated by library staff: 3.6%
- Total percentage decrease originally requested by the City: 1.3%
- Amount of additional money City staff are recommending be removed from the library’s 2011 collections budget, in addition to all cuts considered by the board, approved and unapproved: $400,000
- Number of library materials $400,000 would buy: about 23,500