Beginning Monday, hours at the Beaufort, Bluffton and Hilton Head branches will drop to 40 per week. The three branches will operate on schedules crafted after analyzing traffic patterns.
Staggered hours will allow residents to check out or return books at a neighboring library if the closest branch is closed, said library director Wlodek Zaryczny.
The cuts won't save the county money but will make library hours compatible with current staffing levels, county administrator Gary Kubic said. He estimated it would cost an additional $800,000 a year to fill vacant positions and fully staff the libraries during their current operating hours.
Zaryczny said a hiring freeze and attrition have reduced staff by about 30 percent over the past several years.
"Our aim and goal is to continue to provide the best services possible to the community," he said. "Without the reduction in hours, we would not have been able to do so."
Bernie Kole, president of Friends of the Beaufort Library, said he is urging residents to speak at County Council about the importance of library funding. But until additional dollars are allocated, he said, reducing hours might be "inevitable."
"You can only produce so much with so many people," he said.
Zaryczny said he hopes economic recovery will allow the county to restore lost staff and hours, "but I can't tell you at what point that would occur."
Kole said Friends groups raise money for libraries, but donations aren't enough to cover reductions in taxpayer funding.
"We don't have that kind of buying power," he said. "The hole is getting too big for the private sector to fill."
The Lobeco branch, currently operating at 40 hours per week, and the St. Helena branch, operating at 22.5 hours per week, will not be affected by the changes.