Hamilton council faces U-turn over library fees

DANIEL ADAMS
Last updated 05:00 01/02/2013

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Library-goers have been talking with their feet and may have forced Hamilton City Council into an embarrassing U-turn over controversial fee hikes.

Hamilton's five suburban libraries and the central city library have seen borrowing and reservation numbers plummet since the new fees were introduced last July, dashing council expectations of a rise in revenue.

A report expected in the next two weeks will suggest rolling back some of the increases.

The libraries' purchases budget, pruned by $300,000 from $1.5m already since last year, may also suffer another $200,000 cut.

The council has been tracking deteriorating income for the libraries since the changes were introduced.

Previously positive visitor numbers have slumped: borrowing is down by 90,000 to 850,000 issues in six months since, reservations have fallen by 24 per cent and foot traffic is down 8 per cent, although satisfaction surveys show the libraries are still highly regarded.

Councillor Dave Macpherson warned it could take the libraries years to win back lost patronage.

"I always felt the charges were too high. The problem is, the damage is done now and it will be very hard to win those people back."

Lifting fees to make the libraries earn more caused controversy when proposed late in 2011, and the council last year lost its appetite for more radical increases, and charging to borrow.

Staff had still forecast a $205,000 increase in fees and charges revenue.

Instead it has fallen by $45,000, creating a $250,000 budget hole for the next financial year.

City council community general manager Lance Vervoort is proposing rolling back the fee increases.

He will also seek council approval to cut $200,000 more from purchases this year to offset the tanking income, meaning city libraries will this year spend $500,000, or one third, less than last.

Mr Vervoort said with less borrowing there was less need for new books.

Deputy Mayor Gordon Chesterman said the increased overdue fees had been a victim of their own success and he was not convinced the visitor slump was due to the increased fees.

He wants staff to include a wider survey of libraries nationally in their next report, as well as a breakdown of the Hamilton numbers by library branch.

Mr Vervoort said councillors were briefed on the libraries' ailing budgets before Christmas.

Overdue charges were last year increased from 30c to 50c per item per day and reservation charges from $1.50 to $2.50 per item - staff are proposing both increases be halved.

"What we're finding is the resistance which we predicted is proving to be more than what we had estimated. Just remember that is not an exact science, we used the best information available."

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"We're not getting that revenue, in fact it's going the other way," said Mr Vervoort.

Mayor Julie Hardaker said she had not seen staff proposals in detail but had been briefed.

Council will next week receive updates on the implications of other budget decisions, including service level cuts, but Ms Hardaker said she could not comment until she had that information.

"That's responsible governance, and that's what we'll be doing," said Ms Hardaker.

- Waikato Times

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