With the best of intentions, Beaufort County is building a new library for St. Helena Island and its surrounds.
But at what cost to the county's other branch libraries? That's a serious question in a time of budget and staff cuts that have resulted in library hours reduced by more than a third at the busy Hilton Head Island and Bluffton branches.
The long-stalled St. Helena branch got moving late last year with $5.1 million in state and federal grants and a $6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That took care of the $11 million in constructions costs for the 22,000-square-foot facility, but not the nearly $600,000 a year operating costs coming our way.
The county's $97.1 million operating budget for next fiscal year includes $3.9 million for libraries, an 8 percent increase over this year. But the $310,000 increase doesn't even offset all of the $591,000 budgeted to operate the St. Helena branch, expected to open later this year.
That left Bluffton and Hilton Head with $17,000 and $49,000 in additional budget cuts, respectively.
County Councilman Steve Baer of Hilton Head says the county will spend $100,000 more for eight months of operations at the St. Helena library, serving a population of 22,000, than for 12 months of operations at the Bluffton library, serving a population of 52,000.
Why are we spending so much more per capita for the St. Helena branch? Was an $11 million facility necessary in that area? Could a smaller, more efficient branch have been built, one that would still have been a leap forward from sharing the media center at St. Helena Elementary School?
County officials have been trying to operate within their means. The budget cuts last year and continued reduced operations this year are evidence. But had the county borne the cost of building the new branch, would the result have been a facility that requires $591,000 to operate? We suspect not.
After this new branch opens, county officials should carefully monitor the level of use. Can it meet the community's needs at less than 40 hours?
If Bluffton and Hilton Head are expected to serve larger populations at 40 hours a week, why wouldn't the St. Helena branch be expected to serve a smaller population with fewer hours? At the very least, the Bluffton and Hilton Head branches should not be expected to take even more cuts.
County administrator Gary Kubic indicated that other county services, such as parks and public safety, could pay a price for additional funding for the library system. But more equitable spending within the confines of the library system budget also could be the answer.
Kubic would like to see a comprehensive review of libraries in the county, including those at the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Technical College of the Lowcountry, which receive county support. That review should include how and when people are using each branch, with the goal of maximizing the money spent on library services. He's right on all counts .
He also touts the long-term potential of the St. Helena library, especially given its location on land donated by Penn Center. That may be, but it doesn't lessen the present-day concerns of library users in Bluffton and on Hilton Head.
County officials say they expect to see more in state funding when that budget is finalized, and that could help the county's libraries. They should make sure it does.