On any given day, Hernando County libraries are full of patrons, some sitting on cushy chairs reading the local newspaper, others browsing stacks of nonfiction and fiction books or conducting research at an open computer.
But in a sour economy, the library system, like other county departments, is trying to cut costs. Budget woes have forced the system to employ fewer staffers, reduce hours and close some locations on Saturdays, a popular day for families.
"I find it ironic that the county as well as the state is promoting this FCAT testing, especially for eighth-graders, and it seems that the library is where students go to read," said Peter Limberis, who sits on the county's Library Advisory Committee. "Now they're cutting our budget to the point that we have to cut hours."
Beginning Sept. 2, the Main Library and West Hernando Branch each dropped 14 hours from their weekly schedules and began closing on Saturdays. The Spring Hill and East Hernando branches will close on Mondays but remain open between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. East Hernando has dropped 11 hours from its weekly schedule, while Spring Hill, one of the county's busiest libraries, has dropped 16.
Although patrons typically said they understood that the changes are necessary to keep pace with a dismal economy and the county's declining tax revenues, many shared their disappointment. Some pointed to Amendment 1, which altered the state's property tax system, as the culprit behind the county's budget problems.
"We're going backward instead of being able to maintain what we've built up all these years," said Barbara Shiflett, county library services director.
The next fiscal year will see a 12.31 percent reduction, or $356,510, in county funding for libraries, which includes cuts to postage, movie licensing, delivery of interlibrary loans, magazine subscriptions and education reimbursement and training. Patrons will receive e-mails rather than mailed notices for overdue books.
Friends of the Library, a volunteer group that supports the county library system, and state grants have picked up some of the slack, like maintaining equipment and electronic databases, and providing staff training. The cuts have eliminated the equivalent of 11.5 full-time positions, but the library's growing volunteer force — from 75 last year to 85 this year — has eased some of that burden, Shiflett said.
Michelle Ladines, a third-grade teacher at Chocachatti Elementary School, invites local librarians to talk to her students about using the public library. She said she and other teachers are concerned about the message that reducing library hours sends to students.
"Reading is the foundation for everything," said Ladines, 34. "So if we don't push the importance of reading, we're saying every subject is not important."
A handful of patrons thought reduced hours were a good idea.
"The staff, they're civil, but I can tell they're drained," said Marie Beam of Weekie Wachee.
Yet Beam, like 30-year-old Susan Griffin, hoped the West Hernando Branch would open at least once over the weekend.
"People work," said Griffin, while holding hands with her 4-year-old daughter, Alyssa. "They have to support their families."