TORONTO -- Funding for Ontario's two public library services has been cut in half, a decision the provincial government said it made to help address the province's $11.7-billion deficit.
The heads of the library services in northern and southern Ontario said Tuesday that they were told of the cuts the day after Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives announced their budget last week.
Southern Ontario Library Service CEO Barbara Franchetto said that service will need to cut $1.5 million from its approximately $3 million annual budget this year. She could not immediately say how that will impact service levels or if it will result in layoffs of any of the agency's 42 staff members.
"I've been with this organization for 31 years and I have seen it go through much change and much downsizing," she said. "This is yet another chapter in all of that, unfortunately. I'm very saddened."
Both services provide support to hundreds of public libraries across the province including inter-library loans, book delivery and staff training. They also help libraries pool costs on a number of fronts to achieve operational efficiencies, Franchetto said.
"I think (the libraries are) very disappointed to see that this kind of decision has been made," she said. "It doesn't quite jibe with the kind of message of this government in terms of operating cost-effectively and cost-efficiently. I think that we are a very good example of that. It seems pretty arbitrary."
Mellissa D'Onofrio-Jones, the CEO of Ontario Library Service North whose funding was also slashed in half, said she was surprised by the government's decision.
"(We are) looking at the reduction and evaluating services keeping First Nations and public libraries in the north, and their unique needs, in our minds as we're making decisions," she said.
Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Michael Tibollo defended the cuts Thursday, saying they are part of the government's efforts to deal with the deficit.
"We are keeping our promises to the people of Ontario and putting the province back on a path to balance so that we can protect what matters most to Ontarians," he said.
Tibollo said later in a statement that the government is not cutting local libraries, describing both Ontario library services as "arm's length agencies that have no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Ontario's public libraries."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the decision "shocking" and said libraries are a fundamental part of many communities where they grant, particularly lower-income children, access to computers and other important resources.
"It's where kids who are underprivileged go to use the internet and that kind of equipment," she said. "It's also something that is really clear that Mr. Ford is harkening back to his years as a city councillor when he didn't like libraries back then."
In 2011, Ford, who was then a Toronto city councillor, mused that he would close a library in his ward "in a heartbeat" to help close a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
At that time, author Margaret Atwood sparred publicly with Ford and his brother, then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford, in a bid to save a number of library branches from closing.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the library service budget has been frozen for 20 years and now it's being cut.
"I think it will have negative effects on all communities, big and small, but particularly rural communities who don't have as big a property tax base to support the funding of local libraries," he said. "They rely on provincial funding and to have that funding cut means less access, and in particular I'm thinking less digital access which already, rural communities, many of them have limited access to broadband, internet and other digital services."