by Marcus Gee
These are nervous times in the city. When it emerged that the Toronto Public Library was proposing to close its urban affairs branch, many saw it as the first concrete proof of a plot by Mayor Rob Ford to slash and burn his way across the city. This, after all, was a library full of, well, books. Had the man no sense of decency?
Mounting a pure white stallion, and waving a volume of Magna Carta above her plumed helmet, Councillor Janet Davis, Ward 31, Beaches-East York, led fellow members of the library board in defeating the proposal when they met on Thursday night. The branch will stay open. Mr. Ford’s people are hopping mad.
A victory for the forces of goodness? Think again. Closing the urban affairs branch is just the kind of moderate, sensible cut the city should be looking at as it seeks to exercise restraint in tight times.
The proposal didn’t come from Mr. Ford’s office. It came from the public library’s own finance staff. Like other city departments, they have been under pressure to trim spending. One way to do that is to reduce library hours, but that makes it harder for busy people to get to a branch. Another is to close most branches altogether on Sundays, but Sunday is when many people have the time to visit the library.
So the staff recommended closing the Urban Affairs Library at Metro Hall on King Street, for an average saving of $729,000 a year. Now, nobody likes closing a library, least of all the library’s own staff. But there is logic to the proposal. The library was created when Metro Hall was the seat of Toronto’s regional government. It isn’t any more. Toronto’s government is headquartered at City Hall.
The closing would not mean the end of the library’s important urban affairs collection. It would be moved to the Toronto Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor, which has longer hours than the Metro Hall branch and is right on the subway line. Locating it there could be a positive advantage for urban affairs researchers, who could delve into the reference library’s other resources at the same time as visiting the collection.
Ms. Davis and her supporters note than many people who live or work downtown visit the Metro Hall branch to pick up books they have ordered from other parts of the library system. True, but City Hall library is only a kilometre away and a new library is going in near Fort York to serve the growing downtown condominium community.
Freshman Councillor Josh Matlow, Ward 22, St. Paul’s, is appalled at how the debate unfolded, with Fordists arrayed against anti-Fordists and little consideration for the merits of the idea. He thinks that, on the facts, moving the collection makes sense.
“Why should we be scared to admit that there might need to be some cuts?” he says. “As long as you can support why you decided to make that cut, why it made sense, why it is better to do things differently – do it!”
Whatever you might think of Mr. Ford, his impressive election victory in October showed a clear desire for leaner, more effective city government. His plans to achieve that are vague. His claim that he can do it simply by eliminating “waste,” without any cuts to services, is far-fetched.
But many of his opponents are choosing to thwart him even if (and it does occasionally happen) he is making sense. The library board’s push back came in a week that saw both the police service and the board of health balking at cuts to their budgets. The issue was the topic of heated discussion at a Friday morning meeting of the mayor’s staff, who now have the library budget firmly in their crosshairs.
It won’t do for the mayor’s opponents to reject every attempt to save money as impossible or unthinkable. Far better to pick their battles. The Urban Affairs Library was a dubious cause from the start.
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