Libraries pay price for new St. Helena branch

With great emotion and high hopes for educating rural youngsters, Beaufort County broke ground Oct. 13 on a new library for St. Helena Island.

But the happy day, years in the making, will collide with a sad reality when the new library opens, -- the 24,000-square-foot facility will cost about $700,000 a year to operate and further strain a system that already is struggling to meet operating expenses.

About 95 percent of the library's funding comes from the county, which has had to cut the system's budget after years of steady increases. As of September, county libraries were owed more than $100,000 in fees and fines, and that revenue was deemed necessary enough that the county considered hiring a collection agency to go after it.

In addition, a hiring freeze and attrition have reduced library staff by about 30 percent in recent years, and because of this reduced staffing, the county has cut operating hours. In June, three libraries cut a total of 66 hours from their weekly operating schedules.

County administrator Gary Kubic has said the cuts were designed to cover the cost of operating the new St. Helena library without a tax hike. However, even if the line is held on property-tax bills, reduced operating hours countywide demonstrate that the new library must be paid for, in one form or another.

Even before the cuts, our libraries were falling short of state and county standards for facilities and number of items in the libraries. The state and county standard for facilities is 1.25 square feet per resident, the Hilton Head Island Friends of the Library reports. Hilton Head's 25,000-square-foot library, for example, should be more than 49,000 square feet, given the island's population of 39,392.

The group reports that the library's collection has been increased to 2.4 items per capita, but that still falls short of the recommended basic level of 2.5 items per capita. A full level is 3.5 items.

As for the cost to build the new St. Helena library, about $5.1 million of the $11.1 million project will be covered by a combination of government grants and county impact fees. Even if you consider this free money -- and it's not; it comes from the wallets of taxpayers somewhere -- the rest of the project will be paid for with a $6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That debt will be serviced with a 40-year note starting next year, which is expected to add about three-tenths of a mill to county property-tax bills.

That's hardly a budget-busting expense, and it is a legitimate investment in the intellectual and educational development of all St. Helena Islanders, not just the children.

But it is an expense, and one that seems unwise to take on until it -- and the operating costs -- can be handled without negatively impacting every other library branch.

Even for those who will use the new facility, the benefit of moving the public library out of the St. Helena Elementary School media center where it is now will be blunted if the new branch is not open most evenings and most of the weekend -- when people with jobs or classes to attend typically are able to use a public library.

Moreover, if a library is really worth building, it is worth funding, too. Books and computers aren't of much use if they are kept behind locked doors or cannot be managed or maintained because of a lack of staffing.