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Library boards raise alarm at consultant suggestion of county-wide library system

Local library system 'tantamount' to success of local services, and one-size-fits-all would destroy that, says Collingwood library
2021-10-14 books PEXELS

Consultants charged with "finding efficiencies" in service delivery in Simcoe County, suggest a county-operated library system would be more efficient than the current local library systems in place in each municipality. 

The consultants, however, are not on the same page as local library representatives, who protest a one-size-fits-all system would destroy local services created by local decision-makers.

Nearly two years after County of Simcoe council voted to proceed with finding efficiencies within their services, the Service Delivery Task Force is still working through staff and consultant reports.

“These necessary reviews do cause apprehension for some, creating a defensive reaction,” Chair of the task force and Mayor of Wasaga Beach Nina Bifolchi told Village Media this week.

“This is understandable, however, members of council as elected officials and in this case the library board members they appointed, have a duty and financial responsibility to the taxpayer to find a modern path forward with balanced costs.”

In October, KPMG Consulting first presented a draft report on the efficiency of library services to the task force. The report outlines three options for local libraries moving forward:

  • Option 1: Maintain a modified status quo
  • Option 2: Multiple union boards in the county
  • Option 3: Simcoe County would establish a county library with all lower-tier municipal libraries

The consultant recommended Option 3, which they said would realize about $3 million in savings in service delivery annually.

During their meeting on Nov. 9, the task force received a secondary report from KPMG outlining correspondence they’ve received about the report since its release.

Letters were received by KPMG expressing concern and frustrations from library CAOs and boards from Collingwood, Essa Township, Bradford West Gwillimbury, Innisfil, Springwater Township and Penetanguishene.

“The Collingwood Public Library is a safe space for its patrons. It provides a hub of opportunities for community connection and bridges the digital divide with free access to computers, internet, and Wi-Fi, as well as providing social services supports,” reads a letter from the Collingwood Public Library board.

“Having a local board and making decisions locally is tantamount to the success of services rooted in the place we spend our time. A one-size-fits-all solution will destroy this autonomy,” they noted.

Matthew Corbett, chief executive officer of the Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Library, questioned the methodology of the report overall.

“The report suggests the consultants were not well-versed, nor did they spend the appropriate time attempting to understand library services offered by the co-operative or individual libraries,” noted Corbett.

“The board believes that this report not only has been a waste of taxpayer dollars, but has been an exercise in frustration,” he added.

According to the KPMG report, in total, 108 board members oversee the delivery of library services in Simcoe County, which is more than 10 times the number of comparator library systems. Comparator library systems included Essex, Oxford and Wellington counties.

There are 144 employees, 124 volunteers and 27 student interns delivering library services. The comparator average is 42 employees and minimal volunteers/students.

The analysis of Simcoe County’s operating expenditures for library services found that it exceeds the comparator average by $10.5 million. Personnel costs for the system are $8.4 million or 340 per cent higher than the comparator systems.

After considering all the options at their meeting on Nov. 9, the task force voted in favour of maintaining a modified status quo, a vote that still needs to be ratified by Simcoe County council.

“Option 1 was selected by the committee due to the flexibility it offers in maintaining governance structures of the library system, while providing further opportunities to evaluate the KPMG recommendations and identify efficiencies in the current service models,” said Bifolchi. “Examples of this include evaluating library boards at the municipal level and considering the continued movement to electronic circulation options at the county level.”

According to Bifolchi, Barrie and Orillia were included in the surveys and the research for the report despite being separated cities; however their inclusion in any recommendations would require further discussion with Barrie and Orillia staff and councils.

The task force was formed initially to come up with service efficiency suggestions for the regional governance review through the province, and continued their work after the province announced in October 2019 it would put the decision-making powers back into the hands of the municipalities instead of forcing top-down change.

A task force was struck to support the exercise, which includes Bifolchi as Chair, Springwater Deputy Mayor Jennifer Coughlin, Severn Township Deputy Mayor Jane Dunlop, Bradford West Gwillimbury Deputy Mayor James Leduc and Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson as well as some county staff.

In January 2020, County of Simcoe council voted to hire third-party consultants to look into the possibility of streamlining fire services, land-use planning (Official Plans and zoning) and library services across the County of Simcoe. They also voted to use their own staff to investigate possible efficiencies in storm-water management, legal services, transit, water and wastewater.

In the nearly two years since, consultants were hired and some reports have trickled in, however no major changes to services have yet made their way to the council table.

“There were takeaways from all reports, including legal services and the library, that identify opportunities for efficiencies, supports and additional collaboration between the lower-tiers and the county,” said Bifolchi.

As of now, reports on land-use planning, fire services and water/wastewater are still outstanding and will be further evaluated in early December and into January by the task force and county council.

The recommendation of the Service Delivery Task Force concerning library services will be coming to the County of Simcoe council floor at their Nov. 23 regular meeting to be voted on by all of council.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 13 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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