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Alberta libraries concerned after provincial funding put on hold

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WATCH: There are fears balancing the Alberta budget could put the squeeze on public libraries across the province. Officials say funding they are counting on might get shelved in the fall. Adam MacVicar reports – Aug 7, 2019

Public libraries across Alberta aren’t sure just how much funding they’re going to receive from the provincial government this year, after government officials announced a funding freeze.

According to the provincial government, half of the money allocated for public libraries has been approved and will be given out later this month, but it’s unclear how much of the remaining funds will be distributed when the provincial budget is finalized.

Provincial funding makes up just 10 per cent of the Calgary Public Library’s operating budget, with the rest coming from the city and other grants.

The library saw a reduction in funding of $1.79 million from the city as well this year, adding to concern about what will happen if the remainder of the provincial funding isn’t approved.

READ MORE: Kenney says results of panel on Alberta finances coming in September

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“For us, it would really come down to looking at the least harm approach — making sure that we can always preserve front line services, that’s always a priority for all libraries,” Calgary Public Library director of communications Mary Kapusta said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how this goes.”

But the pinch is expected to be felt even more in smaller towns, where rural libraries rely much more on provincial funding to keep the doors open.

“For some of the libraries, the provincial operating grant is the largest component of their revenue,” Chinook Arch Regional Library System CEO Robin Hepher said. “But any cuts would really have a disproportionate effect on those smaller libraries.”

The Chinook Arch Regional Library System oversees 33 libraries in southern Alberta.

While the organization hasn’t been notified of any potential cuts, officials believe it could be a challenging year if the funding is pulled back, with reduced hours being one of many potential impacts.

“These libraries don’t tend to have a lot of reserves, they don’t have a lot of money to fall back on. They don’t have have a lot of cash in the bank,” Hepher said. “So things like paying staff is going to become more and more tricky as the year wears on.”

Premier Jason Kenney is assuring the public the funding freeze is temporary and there have been no actual cuts to library funding.

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When the new UCP government elected in April, it and took office without a budget, meaning they relied on interim-supply funding until a budget could be finalized later this year.

“We immediately brought forward a bill for interim supply, which was the appropriate thing to do, which provided funding to libraries and everything else for six months of the fiscal year,” Kenney said Wednesday in Edmonton. “The next six months of the fiscal year will be dealt with in the budget.”

READ MORE: Heated committee meeting sees Alberta cut MLA pay by 5% and 10% for premier

Kenney is encouraging any organization or partner that receives money from the Alberta government to continue delivering its programs and services.

The provincial government is waiting for a report from a six-member panel led by former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon before finalizing the budget in late October.

“We will have to go through a period of fiscal responsibility and that’s what we were elected to do,” Kenney said. “That means we need to take the time to get the numbers right and we can’t just write blank cheques when we haven’t yet received the MacKinnon Panel report.”

But according to library officials in southern Alberta, this isn’t the first time a change in government has put funding for libraries into question.

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According to Hepher, only 75 per cent of the provincial funding for libraries was approved when the NDP first came to power in 2015, as the government worked to finalize the 2015-16 budget.

Later that year, the remaining 25 per cent of the funding was approved.

“Half of it is better than nothing at this point, but it will put some strain on libraries for sure,” he said.

While libraries must now wait for the next chapter on provincial funding, Kapusta said it’s crucial to keep libraries well funded and in the community.

“Calgarians and Albertans love their libraries, they’re very well used,” she said. “It’s always important to show support for your library.”

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