Public libraries may be the recession’s next victims.

In a budget proposal presented to Orange County Manager Laura Blackmon March 5, Library Director Lucinda Munger proposed closing the Cedar Grove Branch Library, the Carrboro Branch Library in McDougal Middle School and the Carrboro Cybrary. Munger floated the cuts in response to Blackmon’s request that all department heads slash their budgets by 10 percent.

“No one wants to close libraries, especially a library director,” Munger told the Indy. “However … hard cuts are going to have to be made.”

While all county services are looking at cuts, the library is in a unique position due to the planned opening of a new branch on West Margaret Lane in Hillsborough. Munger said the county is contractually obligated to complete and open the new library, even though it will straddle her department with additional costs. Because of the new facility, slated to open this fall, Munger said closing the Cybrary, Cedar Grove and McDougal branches won’t really be a cost-saving measure, just a way to staunch the flow of red ink.

“Between the cuts, opening a new library and continuing existing library services… It’s a trifecta,” she said. Munger added that layoffs aren’t yet on the table; existing staff would simply be moved into the new Hillsborough library. Munger’s proposal included seven scenarios in which her department could cut costs; five of those involved shuttering some combination of the Cybrary, the Cedar Grove branch and the Carrboro branch. Other options included reducing hours and services, though those scenarios saved up to $250,000 less than closing the smaller branches. The department’s total operating budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year originally was $975,079, but the library has since been forced to cut $15,000, Munger said.

The closure proposal has some seeing red.

“I had expected some service cuts, but I expected hours to be trimmed, maybe some programs to be cut,” said County Commissioner Mike Nelson, the former mayor of Carrboro. “I didn’t expect two branches to be closed. That was a shock.”

Nelson said public libraries serve a vital function in times of recession, because the Internet has become a crucial tool for job-hunters, and many of the unemployed are unable to afford service at home. The Cybrary, located in a small room in the Carrboro Century Center, is particularly geared to this population; it has a small collection of books but offers free Internet access and free weekly classes on basic computer use.

“In times of recession, the public relies on libraries more,” Nelson said, calling the move to close them “drastic.”

Sixty-four-year-old Carrboro resident Marc Frank was checking his e-mail at the Cybrary on a recent Thursday morning. Frank said he comes to the Cybrary almost every day to check e-mail, type his poetry and writing and chat with the librarians.

“I see the Cybrary as something that has added a little more life to this community,” he said. “If it stays, it will be one of those important town landmarks.”

A sheaf of papers from previous weeks, on which librarians tabulated the number of Internet users they served, showed 50 to 150 people using the Cybrary’s computers daily.

The potential closure of libraries is only one of dozens of issues facing county officials. Due to the collapse in car and home salesboth of which provide tax revenueBudget Director Donna Coffey says the county faces an $8.7 million shortfall in this year’s operating budget. The total budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year is $183 million.

“We’re losing revenue because construction is down, we’re losing sales tax revenue, and we’re also anticipating that the state will withhold public school building money,” Coffey said.

Other potential cost-saving measures presented at the March 5 meeting include eliminating access to dental services at Carr Mill Mall (saving almost $68,000); increased response time and decreased training for Emergency Medical Services; and ending the transportation department’s Wheels for Work program ($22,000). Public schools will also have to grapple with a $4 million shortfall.

The county manager is expected to present a finalized budget in early May; the county is required by law to approve its budget by June 30.

Coffey indicated further cuts are expected.

“Department heads were initially asked to reduce by 10 percent, but we realize now that is not going to be sufficient,” she said.