As the economy goes down, business goes up at Pasco County's libraries. More than 227,000 Pasco residents have library cards, a 6 percent increase over a year ago. More people are using the Internet access to search for jobs. More people are borrowing a greater number of materials and more people are taking preparatory classes in anticipation of obtaining a high school equivalency diploma.
And now more people will have less time to avail themselves of the county's nationally recognized libraries after a decision Tuesday by Pasco commissioners. The county's seven branches will close Mondays effective next month. It's a total of 56 hours of reduced public service brought on by a county hiring freeze that has left the library system with 17 vacancies (including nine full-time librarians) and an inability to keep the doors open more than five days a week.
It is a hard-to-swallow budget savings coming 11 months after commissioners approved an earlier cut in operating hours. It also runs contrary to the community investment and widespread acclaim collected by Pasco's library system. Just two years ago, the county completed multimillion-dollar expansions of its branches in Regency Park and Land O'Lakes. Last year, the state of Florida picked the Pasco County Library System as its library of the year and three months ago director Linda Allen was one of 10 librarians selected from a field of more than 3,000 to receive national recognition from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the New York Times.
But acclaim doesn't pay the bills and Allen, with regret, recommended the service cuts Tuesday. The value of the vacant staff positions is more than $472,000.
It is the unfortunate by-product of the severe economic recession on top of a faltering housing market and a voter-approved constitutional amendment granting greater property tax exemptions to homeowners. Pasco County has said its government may have to operate on nearly $30 million less in the coming fiscal year.
One result is less opportunity for library patrons to enjoy programming like reading, video gaming, story time, music, and socializing that turn the libraries from a place to borrow a book into a place rivaling a community center where residents connect through shared experiences.
"Hopefully, sometime in the future, we can get back to normal hours,'' Commissioner Ted Schrader offered Tuesday.
Indeed. That is desirable. But, so, too would be a better definition of "normal.'' A past commission cut library services in a 1990s budget crunch and those operating hours were never restored. Unlike its counterparts in Hillsborough, Pasco's libraries are closed on Sundays. Last year, the commission cut 17 operating hours a week, shutting the buildings at 8 p.m. on the evenings they had been open an hour later. Now add Mondays to the days the libraries will be shut down.
Sadly, it is even more bleak for residents in what had been the county's high-growth residential corridor. After years of talking, libraries planned for Trinity and Wesley Chapel are no longer an immediate concern. How can the county expand its library system when it can't even afford to operate sufficiently the branches it has?