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Vancouver Public Library says City will foot bill for labour lawyer

All the costs of contracting a prominent B.C. labour lawyer to handle upcoming negotiations for the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) with its union will be paid for by the city, said Sandra Singh, the VPL's chief librarian.

The statement comes as part of an ongoing dispute between VPL management and unionized library workers, who were upset by hour reductions for 19 part-time workers and the library's decision to contract prominent lawyer Kim Thorne of Roper Greyell to handle collective agreement negotiations on management's behalf.

Singh said Thorne's fee would not impact the library's operating budget at all, but rather would be paid entirely by the City of Vancouver, which earlier had withdrawn from Metro Vancouver's labour relations bureau, leaving the library without a publicly-funded lead negotiator. The City promised to pay for Thorne to make up for the loss.

Singh said she didn't know how much Thorne would cost compared to a lawyer provided by Metro Vancouver's labour relations bureau. Union members have remained nonplussed by Thorne's appointment.

The tax dollars spent on Thorne would be better put towards front line services for library customers, according to CUPE 391 President Alexandra Youngberg. The union earlier declared it would leaflet the Vancouver International Writers Festival to draw attention to Thorne's work as the fest's vice president.

Youngberg said she was unhappy with hour reductions to the 19 staff, despite half of those positions being fully restored. Several of those workers are still struggling, she said, adding those with less than 20 hours of work a week did not have access to medical leave.

"We've got one person who can't pay her rent; we've got another who was going to get her mortage for her first time. These are people who are suffering, and they can't bring in enough money to live on," said Youngberg.

So far, the library has had to find $500,000 in savings to meet its April 2012 budget. Of the $500,000, $405,000 came from reducing hours for 19 part-time staff. Another $95,000 came from reductions to technical services, said a library spokesperson.

Overall, however, Singh said those reductions should have no impact on access to library services.

"Over the past 10 years, libraries have seen changes in how they use their information and reference services... we have seen declines," she said, noting the library posted fewer staff on reference desks which were being visited less to save costs. She said children's programs and collection services were protected, ensuring library customers would not see reductions in the books they could take out or access online.

The VPL is just one municipal department struggling to find funding during tough economic times.

Initially, the City had asked municipal departments to find three per cent in savings, which would've meant $1.5 to $1.3 million dollars in cuts for the VPL, said a library spokesperson. That number was lowered to $500,000.

Singh said she did not have a crystal ball and could not predict what next year's budget would entail for the library. She said, however, federal and provincial cuts and previous collective agreements with the union -- which included more funds for increased cost of living in Vancouver -- would mean tight budgets in future years.

Adam Pez is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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