Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Toronto, the city where I live, is under a black cloud. That cloud emanates from City Hall where our new mayor, Rob Ford, has set about remaking Toronto according to his image. Wanting to find the “gravy” in ways the city goes about its business was the mantra that got him elected. Enough voters figured that someone who wanted to cut taxes and make the business of the city smaller was a person they wanted to see in office. The man got elected last fall.

Of course, cutting taxes or eliminating them while at the same time promising not to reduce services is something that just can’t be done. Mayor Ford’s strong suit has never been mathematics and finance. He proved that as a long-time councillor before he got himself elected to the “big chair” at city council.

One of his first orders of business was to bring in an outside company do a complete review of every city department to find the gravy that could be sopped up. He also eliminated an unpopular vehicle tax, froze property taxes for a year and wiped out the city’s contingency funds while doing this in order to balance his first budget.

Now, the chickens have come home to roost. There is a budget deficit of nearly $800 million for next year. Very little gravy was found, surprise, surprise (we’ve had several other gravy expeditions over the years in Toronto).

What to do? And more importantly, why is Blechta telling me this on a writers’ blog?

Simple. One of the city’s operations that was looked at is the Toronto Public Library. Here’s some history you should know before we go further: it is the most utilized library system in North America. It is the envy of a lot of other big city library systems on the planet. They know what they’re doing and usage increases every year. The city is getting a huge bang for their tax buck here.

So what do the politicos propose doing? Why cutting the library’s budget, of course, something that’s been done a many times in the past. Everybody has to take their lumps, don’t they? Why should a library be different? They’re also proposing closing some branches. How many and where? They won’t tell us that (they probably don’t know). But here’s the real kicker: the company doing the review (KPMG) has also proposed hiring a company to run the library. It’s not clear whether the library would be sold or a company brought in to run it. Either way, the proposal is to privatize.

Huh? There are companies prepared to run libraries? Here’s something else you should know: the library’s board ran afoul of our good mayor almost immediately when the first budget consultations were ongoing early this year. Rob Ford doesn’t forget people who cross him. Here’s a quote from a recent radio interview: “I have more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons (a Canadian coffee and doughnut chain).” Boy, there’s a good reason to do a hatchet job on a public institution if I’ve ever heard one!

So here’s what I think is really going on. By privatizing the operation of the library, Ford gets to punish the board, drop a lot of cost and force a lot of employees out of a job. The first thing you’ll see with an outside operator are much smaller, unprotected jobs and all kinds of fees. Want a book? You pay a fee. Want to use a computer to research something? You’ll pay a fee. Want to use a room for a meeting of your literary club? Fee.

Another thing: what will be the rules of operation? How many new books will the operator be forced to purchase? The purchasing budget has been dropping steadily over the past few years. It will get worse. They won’t purchase my novels (or as many copies as they have in the past) and the same thing will happen to the rest of us. I’ll bet library use will drop – and this is at a time when school boards in Ontario (our province) are closing their libraries at alarming rates. When only a library will do, where will those students go?

This promises to be an ugly fight. I’m sure our mayor hasn’t read a book in years. He’ll tell you he doesn’t have time, but we can guess the truth: he’s never been a reader. If that is indeed the case, he’ll never see the value of having a world-class library system. "I don’t use it, so why should my tax dollars support it?"

Now here’s the real reason I’m telling you all this: be prepared for it to happen in your community. Be ready and be willing to get active. If you live in Toronto, there’s a petition you can sign: ourpubliclibrary.to. Do it today.

Your children and grandchildren will thank you.


Kathleen George said...

I read this with interest. In Pittsburgh we have a young mayor who is staunchly anti-intellectual. It's scary when libraries take the hit.

Rick Blechta said...

Kathleen, it's frightening how these people are being elected all over. I could go on about our recent federal election, how politics are almost completely dominated by optics not by intellect, style over substance.

I despair for the human race at times.

Vicki Delany said...

I never been robbed so why should my taxes go to a police force that I don't use. My children are finished school so why... And on and on I could go. Didn't someone say taxes are the price of a civilized society?

Corey Redekop said...

Whenever there is a true need for libraries, whenever there is a recession/depression and attendance/usage numbers increase, libraries get cut.

And privatizing library services is the worst sort of solution, a proven failure: http://privatizationbeast.org/files/2011/07/2-page-fact-sheet-Library-Privatization.pdf

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

This is an awful situation. Aside from closing branches, I can't imagine how anyone could imagine that a public library can be turned over to a private company to run. I just attended the American Library Association conference with the SinC team, and was reminded once again of how amazing librarians and libraries are and how much we need them.

But this does make me feel proud of Albany. It took two tries, but on Tuesday the voters approved an amended public library budget even though it will increase our property taxes slightly.

Rick Blechta said...

Frankie, your email gives me hope. Bravo for Albany! Let me make it clear that Toronto is currently being run by a buffoon. I know. I've met him on a few occasions because he was the councillor whose ward contained 2 schools at which I taught instrumental music.

I wish he was in the minority, but he isn't -- and it's going to get worse. Whenever the financial crap hits the fan, an easy cut is arts and culture. I'm not going on about this because I'm in that sector. If I were doing any other kind of job I would be howling just the same. We NEED these things in our lives. Even as book technology and information technology change, libraries will remain important.

We must remain vigilant!

Thanks everyone for weighing in on this!