Beaufort County: Longer library hours unlikely this year

cconley@islandpacket.comFebruary 7, 2013 

In this file photo, Kathleen McTeer, children's manager at the St. Helena Branch Library, inspects the computers in the children's section during the library's first day in October 2012.

STAFF PHOTO

Proposals floated last summer to extend hours at Beaufort County library branches using a one-time infusion of state aid are back on the shelf.

Councilman Steve Baer, who regularly argues for longer library hours, especially at the Bluffton and Hilton Head Island branches, acknowledged this week that current shortened schedules probably will continue at least until summer.

"Nothing is happening, but I intend to push for it," Baer said this week. "I would like to see a reasonable compromise of 10 hours or more (added) at each of the major branches."

Extended library hours, employee raises and numerous other proposals emerged last summer after the state legislature's 2013-14 budget compromise included a one-time increase of nearly $800,000 for Beaufort County government.

All told, the county received about $1 million more this year in state aid. The only problem is, county finance staff built that money into the $97 million budget before the money arrived. In other words, that money had long been spoken for.

"There is no windfall here," said county chief financial officer David Starkey, who said the increase in state aid was mostly canceled out by 2 percent raises for county employees.

It's not a situation where "we have millions of dollars and don't know what to do with it," he added.

County administrator Gary Kubic said various departments and groups have presented his staff with a long wish list that includes new staff, new equipment and new programs. Extended library hours are just one of many items on that list.

But with five months left in the fiscal year and uncertainty over the reassessment of property and federal budget cuts, he's wary of taking on new long-term commitments that come with adding staff or giving raises.

"Because of those two big unknowns ... I am a little hesitant to say, 'Yeah, we are ahead on receipts ... let's go ahead and spend it,' " he said.

Three of the five branches in the library system have lost hours since budget cuts in July 2011. Beaufort and Hilton Head branches went from 60 hours a week to 40; the Bluffton branch moved from 66 hours a week to 40. Most branches also have smaller staffs than they did five years ago.

The new branch on St. Helena Island is the exception. Its hours were increased from 22.5 to 40 a week after the $11 million, 23,000-square-foot branch opened last fall. All other branches' hours remained the same.

Lynne Miller, head of the Friends of the Hilton Head Library, said the cutbacks have been difficult for library patrons and staff. She also said there are fewer students using the library to do homework.

"Sometimes you see people coming up and banging on the door," she said. "People are frustrated over it ... but I just really hope it goes back to where it was" before the cuts.

Baer, who represents part of Hilton Head, says concerns about library hours are among the biggest complaints he gets. He plans to raise the issue at council's retreat this month and will work to add library hours in next year's budget.

"I haven't given up," he said.

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