Though next year's Beaufort County budget has been approved, debate over funding for its public library system is just getting started.
County officials say they have received dozens of emails and phone calls from residents upset because library hours were cut last year and budgets were reduced at some branches in the new budget.
Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer says the concerns are not new, but now some library patrons have run out of patience.
"The real issue is the libraries of Bluffton and Hilton Head -- especially over the past five years or so -- have lost almost a quarter of their funding," he said. "They have been on a downhill pattern every year."
Three of the five branches in the library system have lost hours since June 2011. Beaufort and Hilton Head went from 60 hours a week to 40; the Bluffton branch moved from 66 hours a week to 40.
This year, though, the St. Helena Island library's hours will expand from 22.5 hours a week to 40 hours after its new building opens. All other branches' hours will remain the same.
The branches also have smaller staffs than they did five years ago.
"Our branch is working with a bare-bones staff," said Lynne Miller, head of Friends of the Hilton Head Library. "What that translates to is we don't have librarians to help people use the Internet or help with job searches. Lots of things librarians have done in the past they can't do anymore."
The $97.1 million 2012-13 county budget includes $3.9 million for libraries, an 8 percent increase from this year. However, the increase of about $310,000 will be more than swallowed by $591,000 in operating costs for the $11 million St. Helena branch under construction.
The 23,000-square-foot branch will replace a one-room library operated for years out of St. Helena Elementary School, but at an additional cost of $500,000 a year. Much of that cost is related to hiring up to eight new employees at the branch.
Meanwhile, budgets for other branches are being cut. The Bluffton library will work with about $17,000 less next year, and the Hilton Head branch faces a $49,000 cut.
Some residents in Bluffton and on Hilton Head aren't happy about the new funding arrangement.
"That is not fair for anyone," Maryellen Ham, president of Friends of the Bluffton Library, wrote in an email newsletter.
Baer, who described the St. Helena branch as "overly large," says the new library will serve far fewer people than the Bluffton and Hilton Head branches but will receive more funding.
"There should be an equality in the level of service in those branches, and there should be a budget increase overall for the system so we can increase the hours," he said.
St. Helena-area County Councilman Bill McBride disagreed with Baer's assessment of the new library.
"I don't think it's too big. I think it's just right for the population it's going to serve," he said Friday, noting that residents from Lady's Island and the nearby Sea Islands also would use the new branch. "For over 20 years, all St. Helena had was a room in St. Helena (Elementary) School."
NO EASY SOLUTION
County administrator Gary Kubic says branch hours can't be extended without adding staff. Funding would have to be diverted from other areas, such as public safety or parks, or come from a tax increase.
Kubic says libraries are no longer lending and educational centers; they are unemployment and job centers, too. Many patrons are interested more in computers and Internet access than checking out books.
"If you want to adjust hours, if you want to help the unemployed or the underemployed get a job, you have to do an assessment as to when the highest utilization is occurring so that you are matching with your primary mission," Kubic said.
The University of South Carolina Beaufort, which receives $2 million annually from the county, could be part of a long-term solution, Kubic says.
USCB's Hilton Head Gateway Campus library is open seven days a week and is much closer to Sun City Hilton Head than the Bluffton branch. Stocking the university library with new books, Kubic said, would be much cheaper than hiring new staff and could ease pressure on other branches.
Non-students already can use computers and browse books at the university library, USCB Chancellor Jane Upshaw said. But a library card to borrow books costs $10.
Meanwhile, some County Council members say they are optimistic more money can be found this year to support library operations. For now, it appears the county will receive more state funding next year than expected. Several council members say they are willing to devote part of that money to libraries.
"When money is available, everyone has their hand out saying, 'What about me?'" Kubic said. "I do feel good about improving (the library funding situation); it's just going to take a little time to sort it out."