"If it works, break it!" could be Toronto's new motto.
When it comes to libraries, we have a roaring success story: usage of our book havens has gone up 24 per cent in just the last three years, despite the fact that staffing levels remain 182 to 262 employees short due to a hiring freeze.
But it doesn't seem to matter that locals love their reading rooms. City finance staff are insisting on the closure of the Urban Affairs Library at Metro Hall and its removal to the Reference Library, and a budget increase of only 2 per cent that assumes a cut of about 100,000 new books. Ahem, Mister Mayor, this is a service cut.
Not that the library board didn't try a little justified rebellion on behalf of its customers. On Thursday, January 6, in a council room at the Toronto Reference Library, with a standing-room crowd of about 60, Councillor Janet Davis moved an amendment, which passed, for a 2.6 per cent increase that could forestall the chopping of new items and save the Urban Affairs branch.
But time marches on, and by Monday finance staff had dumbed that down to 2 per cent. According to Davis, the actual cost of keeping the status quo on services is a 3.3 per cent increase - so service deterioration is assured.
"Some people don't understand that our service is circulating books,'' Davis tells NOW. "If we cut $100,000, you'll wait even longer for the latest Dan Brown, and the collection will become stale-dated. We have to keep up."
As for closing the Urban Affairs Library, she says, it makes no sense. "This is a growing community. There's more activity there than at many smaller branches."
That is certainly the theme at the January 6 meeting, where chair Matthew Church presides, declaring that the proceedings will be conducted without "vitriol or vituperation." He's been to a library or two.
Public deputant Devendra Sharma reminds the board that eight to 10 condo towers are going up in the vicinity of Metro Hall between the CN Tower and Air Canada Centre. He quotes Napoleon, points out that the first library was in Alexandria, Egypt, and is moving on to Winston Churchill when the chair tells him his views are appreciated, which Sharma openly doubts.
"A jewel," is how John Sewell describes the branch. Much of the material is not in book form but in well-catalogued reports, he says.
A significant proportion of the library's computer users, Councillor Adam Vaughan points out, are those from the employment centre in the same building. The voting population in the area has risen by 7,000 in six months, he says, adding that people working downtown who may have no local library order and borrow books here. He wants to keep the facility open at least until the Fort York branch at Portland and King opens in 2014.
Church, in the chair, sets aside his gavel to stress the responsibility of stewardship. "We should not be in a rushed budget process. It is a branch closure - representing a saving of $100,000 net."
He says he has learned the "fluidity" of seemingly hard-and-fast numbers and how "accommodations" can be made. "Our job as board members is in the better interests of the library."
Board member Okeima Lawrence, speaks movingly. "I would regret a closure. Since the age of five, libraries saved my life. If I'd had to take a bus, I probably wouldn't have gone."
The motion is quickly passed, with only Mayor Ford's allies Cesar Palacio and Paul Ainslie voting against it. Alas, they will probably get their way in the end (the 2 per cent increase option is going to the budget committee Thursday or Friday) and the only further chance for public feed-in will be the broader consultations beginning January 19.