St. Helena Branch Library lease: County's $150K gain would be school district's pain

cconley@islandpacket.comAugust 15, 2012 

Beaufort County could receive a $150,000 windfall later this year upon canceling its library lease at St. Helena Elementary, according to county officials.

One potential downside, at least for taxpayers: The money would come from the Beaufort County School District, which is tapping reserves and seeking a tax increase to balance its budget for 2012-13.

County Council voted Monday to terminate the library lease effective Nov. 1, in anticipation of the opening of a new $11.1 million library on St. Helena Island.

Before the vote, county attorney Josh Gruber referenced a provision in a 2004 lease that the school district repay $150,000 when the lease ends. According to Gruber and other county staff, that money was given to the district to help build the school in the early 1990s.

School district officials, who were present Monday for a discussion on the 2012-13 budget, said they weren't familiar with the lease provisions.

"It hasn't been resolved. (Monday) was the first time I'd heard of it," said school board Chairman Fred Washington Jr., who added that the $150,000 was not allocated in the district's $177.9 million budget.

"Since we weren't given an alert by the county, now we have to ... go back and look at the lease, look at the terms, have a discussion and make a decision," he continued.

County library director Wlodek Zaryczny said the county has operated a library from the elementary school since 1992. He said the payback provision in the lease has existed since then and has been renewed at least once over the years.

The new, 23,500-square-foot branch -- with state-of-the-art computers and equipment -- will be on the Penn Center campus. Construction on the branch is on schedule and should be completed this fall, he said.

For now, all the county has done is give 90-day notice to cancel the lease, Council Chairman Weston Newton said Wednesday. He said it was too soon to know if enforcing the repayment clause would harm the school district finances.

Any funding received from the school district probably would go into the county's general fund. However, Newton and others suggested researching where the money initially came from before determining how to use the proceeds.

Others are already brainstorming possible ways to spend the money.

Councilman Steven Baer, for one, says it could be used to add hours at county library branches after last year's reductions.

"The single-most irksome thing, for Bluffton and Hilton Head Island library patrons at least, is the hours. Going from 40 to 50 hours per week is a reasonable compromise," he said. "It wouldn't cost that much money. It would cost less than $50,000 per branch."

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