Library supporters hope Jackson County's budget woes won't signal a repeat of the 2007 closure of 15 branches for six months.
Under tremendous budget pressures, the county will soon look at every program it offers to see whether there are ways to cut costs in the 2013-15 budget.
"Everything's on the table, and libraries are one of those issues," Commissioner Don Skundrick said.
So far, the county hasn't made any decisions about ways to cut costs, and Skundrick said he doesn't think libraries will face closure. But he said library hours could be affected.
After libraries reopened after the 2007 closure, many had reduced hours of operation, though some communities raised money to offer additional hours.
Libraries play an important role in both large and small communities, Skundrick said.
"In these little communities, it is their community center," he said.
The county will likely face some difficult choices over the next year as the county continues to spend its reserves to pay for libraries, the Planning Department and the Sheriff's Department.
"Everybody else is taking whacks, including the sheriff," Skundrick said. "I think everybody sees the writing on the wall."
The county will be putting together its budget in April, looking for ways to save money.
In this fiscal year, the county has dipped into a rainy day fund to the tune of $6 million. In 2013-14, the county will require another $7 million in reserve funds to maintain the budget.
Skundrick said the county also is looking for ways to find about $1 million more for the Community Justice budget.
The county has seen relatively flat revenues from property taxes, along with steep hikes in payments into the Public Employees Retirement System.
Library supporters have received only an inkling of potential budget cutbacks, though some expect the situation to worsen.
"Personally, it's disappointing," said Kevin Keating, a member of the Jackson County Library Advisory Committee. "I would support more dollars for libraries."
Keating said the county has told his committee that there have been some general discussions about not providing a 3-percent cost-of-living increase to libraries in the coming year, as well as a cut in the materials budget.
Keating said the writing is on the wall that some kind of cuts are possible for libraries, particularly when other departments such as the sheriff's also face budget pressures.
Jim Fety, a former member of the Library Advisory Committee, said the closure of every branch in 2007 was difficult for the community.
"There are so many bitter memories of the process," he said. "It was so gut wrenching.
Fety said he understands budget realities and wouldn't be surprised to see discussions about reducing library hours.
"How the budget is handled affects lives and discloses what our priorities are," Fety said.
Michelle Blum Atkinson, a Library Advisory Committee member, said she is trying to remain optimistic and holds out hope that library hours could be expanded.
She said she is working with others on a plan to get additional funding for libraries, but said it is premature to release details.
"There's a big push to try and get libraries open more," she said.
Libraries are seeing more visitors than ever, Blum Atkinson said. In Prospect, for instance, local residents bring their lawn chairs outside the library to log onto the Internet with their personal computers when the branch is closed, she said.
Libraries are too important for local communities, and they've served an important function for people struggling in the economic downturn, Blum Atkinson said.
"I am optimistic about it," she said. "I think things will work out."
Harvey Bragg, deputy county administrator, said the county has been dipping into its reserves for many years, but $2 million in additional PERS payments next year have added to budget pressures.
Bragg said the libraries cost the county about $6 million annually. He said county staff is in the midst of preparing a budget recommendation that will be analyzed by the county Budget Committee in April.
"I wouldn't say anything is on the table at this point," he said. "Do the libraries have a target on their back? Not any more than they've had in the past."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.