County library struggles as usage increases while funding drops

She isn't complaining about it, but Marietta Fields has definitely noticed changes during her almost-daily trips to the Bluffton library.

Fields doesn't own a computer, so the library provides her connection to e-mail, videos, and anything else that interests her. But between the longer lines at the desk and the 10- to 15-minute wait to spend 75 minutes on the computers, it has become apparent she isn't alone.

The number of people using computers in the Beaufort County Library system increased 22 percent since July 2008, with 119,256 people using the 161 public computers in fiscal year 2010. Bluffton branch manager Ann Rosen said she has noticed a steady increase in people looking online for jobs and creating resumès. She said many also bring their own computers to use the free wireless service that was installed about three years ago.

That increase in demand for online services, along with an increase of more than 25 percent in items checked out over that same period, doesn't necessarily translate to a bigger budget for the library, however. Even overdue fees go directly to the county's general fund.

About 95 percent of the library's funding comes from the county, which has had to cut after years of steady increases. The general-fund allocation dropped from $4.43 million in fiscal year 2009 to less than $4.1 million in 2010, according to the county's website and chief financial officer David Starkey.

Although the library is still able to replace old computers when they break, it needs to add more, said Wlodek Zaryczny, the county's library director.

"It is extremely difficult," Zaryczny said. "We are reducing programs, and we are reducing services."

Zaryczny said 16 jobs across the system were lost through attrition and three more employees are set to retire by Oct. 31. It's unlikely they will be replaced immediately. He said the departure of Bluffton's lab instructor recently left the library with minimal resources for classes and programs in the computer lab.

Beaufort previously lost its children's librarian, and Bluffton will be without a children's librarian as well, after Jean Morgan's retirement today.

With the help of the nonprofit group Friends of the Library, volunteers can help patrons use computers or help the staff shelve books. But Zaryczny said much of the work done by qualified librarians is irreplaceable.

The S.C. General Assembly's goal is to provide $2.50 per capita in state fundingfor each county, based on 2000 census populations. But recent cuts have dropped the fiscal year 2011 rate to just $1.03 per capita, or less than $125,000 for Beaufort County.

The county should get a boost in state funding next year, when new census numbers are factored into allocations for the first time since 2001, when Beaufort County had about 35,000 fewer residents.

Starkey said the library's 2011 budget will increase slightly, but the county's Executive Committee -- the chairmen of each of the County Council's committees -- acknowledged Monday the library could be a source for more cuts if the economy doesn't improve.

Council members Steven Baer and Laura Von Harten defended the library during a discussion of potential budget cuts. Baer said Thursday that the library should be just below public safety on the priority list, and Von Harten said if necessary, she would rather see reduced hours at the librariesthan further cuts to their services.

"I think libraries are the key to our economic development, our educational system and your quality of life overall," Von Harten said.