There's a certain symmetry to Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer's suggestion that $150,000 owed the county under terms of a library lease should go to expand hours at the Bluffton and Hilton Head Island libraries.
The county says the Beaufort County School District owes the money for a county contribution to St. Helena Elementary School's construction in the early 1990s. The county has been leasing library space in the school since it opened in 1992.
The county plans to open a new $11.1 million library on St. Helena this fall and has given the district 90-days notice that it is moving out. School board members seemed surprise to learn that the district might owe the county $150,000 under the lease. County Council Chairman Weston Newton said the money would go into the county's general fund.
But Baer's suggestion to use some of the money to restore library hours at the two libraries seems logical. The money comes as a result of the county's opening the new St. Helena library. Budget pressures from having to pay to operate that new library have contributed to funding cuts at the other two branches.
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. The Bluffton and Hilton Head branches have had to cut their budgets another $17,000 and $49,000, respectively.
"The single-most irksome thing, for Bluffton and Hilton Head Island library patrons at least, is the hours," Baer said. "Going from 40 to 50 hours per week is a reasonable compromise. It wouldn't cost that much money. It would cost less than $50,000 per branch."
Dropping that $150,000 into a $97.1 million operating budget will cause hardly a ripple. But library patrons would notice expanded hours. And school district officials might feel better about having to pay the money if they thought it would help public school students gain more access to the libraries.
It's worth considering if the county insists on collecting the money.