Why Last Night’s Library Budget Vote Isn’t Necessarily Good News
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Why Last Night’s Library Budget Vote Isn’t Necessarily Good News

The TPL board rejected cuts to hours and programs, but library lovers aren't in the clear quite yet.

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The Toronto Public Library board voted Monday night to forgo a bunch of very severe program cuts (up to and including the complete elimination of bookmobile service), and they even reaffirmed an earlier decision not to reduce hours at any branches. But if last year’s library budget process is any indication, library users still aren’t safe from Rob Ford’s cost-reduction agenda.

The uncertainty has mostly to do with the fact that the TPL board doesn’t have final say on its own budget matters. City council decides how much money goes to Toronto’s different commissions, boards, and agencies. What TPL’s directors approved Monday night was what’s called a “budget submission”—essentially a request for money that council can decide not to fulfill.

TPL’s budget submission represents a 5.9% reduction compared to the library’s 2011 budget, which is a significant cut. (Users will pay a new $1 fine for holds not picked up, and the equivalent of 100 full-time positions will be eliminated. They’ll be replaced, in part, by self-checkout technology.) But the mayor, through the city manager’s office, has been asking all departments for 10 per cent reductions, so Monday’s submission still falls well short of the mark.

The situation was similar in 2011, but the amounts involved were much less drastic. The City had asked the TPL board for a budget that would represent a 2 per cent increase over 2010. Instead, the board submitted one with an increase of 2.06%. The .06% was the roughly $100,000 needed to keep the Urban Affairs Library, a small branch located in Metro Hall, open in 2011.

The procedural wrangling that followed was complicated, but essentially what happened was this: city council voted to cut the .06% out of TPL’s budget anyway. (Rob Ford was still at the peak of his popularity, so it’s probable that many councillors simply didn’t want to seen as obstructing his agenda.) The TPL board, at its next meeting, tried to shuffle their budget around so that the Urban Affairs Library could remain open, but legal advisors told them that they were powerless to do anything but close the branch, per city council’s wishes. The branch closed in September.

The political situation has changed somewhat in the intervening months. Rob Ford’s popularity is on the wane, but, also, the library board itself is different. Since defying Ford during last year’s budget process, every citizen member on the board has been replaced. The new board members have, for the most part, Ford-friendly backgrounds: two have accounting credentials, three others are lobbyists. There are also five city councillors on the TPL board, and three of them are on Rob Ford’s executive committee, meaning they are some of his closest allies on council.

And that’s what makes the outcome of last night’s meeting a little strange. Not only did the board reject all those program cuts, but they also rejected a compromise from the new board chair, Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East), one of the staunchest of Ford’s allies.

Just before the vote, Ainslie made a proposal that would have avoided program cuts while still getting close to the 10 per cent budget cut target. He suggested, rather than eliminating those programs, reducing hours at branches, presumably along the lines of the list prepared by TPL in October in advance of the first round of voting on TPL’s budget. Ainslie sweetened the deal by excluding Sunday hours, which were on the table in October. The deal would also have reduced the library’s collections budget by about $1.84 million, about the same amount proposed in October.

Since this package of cuts was coming from Ainslie, it was reasonable to assume that the proposal had been vetted by the mayor’s office. (The Globe is reporting that it was.) A board so dominated by Ford pals should, by all rights, have accepted it without delay, and then spent the rest of the night crowing to reporters about how they’d “saved” Sunday hours while remaining mindful of the City’s supposed budget constraints.

And yet they rejected the deal eight to five, with even Councillors Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) and Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), both executive committee members, voting against.

Where does this leave Toronto’s library lovers? Hard to say. That Robinson and Palacio broke ranks to vote against the proposal is huge. It could mean that Ford no longer has the votes on council to pass unpopular library cuts.

But if council does decide to cut the library’s budget by the full 10 per cent, they can do it. By passing up a final deal from the mayor’s point man, the TPL board has forfeited what little control they had over how deep those cuts may be. On the other hand, they’ve also placed full responsibility for whatever happens now on Rob Ford’s shoulders.

The City’s budget is expected to come to a vote at a council meeting scheduled to run from January 17–19. We’ll know then whether or not TPL is in for a repeat of 2011, writ large.