City politicians - at least for now - have rejected a request from the Orillia Public Library for $71,000 to fund security guards at the downtown facility.
The decision was made during operating budget deliberations Wednesday and is subject to ratification at a special Dec. 7 meeting of council.
While they didn’t support spending the money, budget committee - comprised of Mayor Steve Clarke and city councillors - voted to have members of the city’s senior leadership team meet with library CEO Suzanne Campbell and members of the library board to evaluate the situation and report back to council, within the first quarter of 2021, with “options and opportunities.”
In a report to budget committee, library officials made their case for security guards.
The report noted that “in the fall of 2019 it became clear to the library board that the situation was affecting the provision of service, compromising the public’s safety and enjoyment of the space, and creating excessive stress for staff.”
Campbell said “it’s an absolute necessity,” to have security guards on site, noting that’s something both Barrie and Midland already fund at their libraries.
The security firm that provides the service to those two libraries estimated it would cost $71,000 to have security guards on duty whenever Orillia’s public library is open.
Several varying opinions were expressed during the 45-minute discussion that was part of an eight-hour-long virtual meeting.
Coun. Ted Emond admitted he was “torn” about the issue, noting his wife, a children’s lawyer, often uses "safe" libraries to meet with clients and said the presence of security guards in Barrie, for example, was “essential.”
He said there might be merit in trying the idea for a year, while gauging how the OPP’s stated plan to increase their presence in the downtown played out.
Coun. Rob Kloostra, council’s representative to the library board, said after “going back and forth” all weekend, decided he could not support the funding request for security guards.
He floated the idea of going with the library board's second option, which called for the closure of the main floor washrooms and the removal of seats in the cafe. That plan would also call for a new remote control entry to the accessible bathroom to which access could be granted, remotely, by staff.
“We haven’t even given this a try,” said Kloostra, noting he could not support funding security guards.
But Coun. TIm Lauer did not like the idea of closing part of the public space.
“By definition, a library is for everyone and that is a right thing. Rather than shut it down, closing bathrooms … (let’s) maintain an open, free environment with an element of safety.”
Coun. Jay Fallis suggested a different way to look at the issue. He sought support to hire a harm reduction worker or social worker.
He said 17 of the 38 calls referenced in the staff report were issues related to drugs and alcohol use.
“As opposed to pushing people out of the door, (we could try) to tackle issue head on,” said Fallis.
He noted the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s No. 1 recommendation as part of any opioid strategy is to hire a drug strategy co-ordinator - something the city could try.
“As opposed to focusing on the security element, we could invest in someone with a background in this area that could make a meaningful difference in addressing this issue,” Fallis said.
Coun. Pat Hehn said that could be “a plausible alternative” worth considering.
All such suggestions and ideas will be researched, said the city’s CAO, Gayle Jackson, who noted this issue was the subject of a “fairly heavy discussion” among the city’s leadership team during its pre-budget meetings.
She said the request represents 3% of the library’s entire budget. Jackson also noted that what a security guard might be able to do to address issues is “minimal.”
Clarke suggested the idea of deferring the decision until a “wholesome” report is completed.
He stressed that report needs to be “well thought-out, researched and benchmarked” and include “viable solutions.”
Coun. Mason Ainsworth wanted assurance the report would include more than one quote for service. He said he was disappointed the library only sought a cost estimate from one security firm when it presented its request to council last week.
Lauer also suggested the city may be able to recoup some of its costs for security guards by using the cafe space as originally intended - as a cafe.
All such options and suggestions will be considered, Jackson vowed.
If council had approved the expenditure for security guards, the money would have been taken from the Tax Rate Stabilization Reserve so that council could pass a zero per cent budget. That is council's goal to ensure local taxpayers don't face a tax increase amid the pandemic.
Members of the budget committee sifted through 84 line items in its $62.4-million operating budget on Wednesday. Today, deliberations resume with items related to water, wastewater and sewer operations.
Council will meet next week to discuss items in its 31.29 million capital budget - $2 million of which is the capital tax levy.