This year's budget cuts forced Pasco's libraries to scale back on operating hours and book purchases.
But last week a new expense came online: security guards at all seven branches.
Library officials say the decision to hire part-time guards — which will cost the library system $24,960 per year — is in response to minor incidents such as vandalism, kids smoking in the parking lots and a handful of patrons who were acting erratically.
Linda Allen, libraries director, said the safety of patrons and employees took precedence over the services pinched by funding cutbacks.
"If this isn't a safe or positive place to be, we won't have to worry about books, because people won't be coming," she said. "There's more anger in the general population, and they seem to take it out on public services sometimes.
"We are facing more people coming to the library who are homeless or unemployed. And people who maybe have emotional or mental problems are acting out more. It concerns us."
The decision to hire security guards was made in 2007, Allen said. But the bidding and interviewing process took longer than anticipated, pushing the hiring to this year.
Guards with American Protection Service Inc., based in Meridian, Miss., started work at Pasco's libraries on Nov. 3. The company stations one security guard at each of the seven branches for about four hours each weekday. The time of the shift varies by branch.
The guards earn $13 per hour.
In addition to patrolling the library's grounds, guards will help with special events or escorting employees or people with disabilities to their cars, said Brian Fortenberry, president of the company.
Pasco's library system joins others in the Tampa Bay area that use private security companies or law enforcement personnel.
In Tampa, security guards have been used in some branches of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Libraries for the past 25 years, said Joe Stines, director of libraries.
"We keep incident reports and analyze patterns to decide (security options)," Stines said.
In Clearwater, police aides — people with security backgrounds who go through training by Clearwater police officers — guard two of the city's five library branches, said Eleanor Scharf, assistant libraries director of the city's library system.
Vandalism and a higher concentration of kids at certain branches prompted the decision to hire security, Scharf said. The library system has been using security guards or police aides on and off for the past 10 years, Scharf said.
"With our building and our location, it was needed to patrol the area," said Scharf, who works in the main library branch.
In Pasco, funding cuts have prompted officials this year to close library branches an hour earlier and postpone purchasing new materials. The library system's $7-million budget took a 10 percent hit.
But Allen said hiring security was crucial.
"More people are coming in, and more are needing services," she said. "The safety of our patrons is important."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.