They start arriving around 12:30 p.m. At first, just a few people huddle outside in the cold until they're allowed into the foyer to stay warm. By 1 p.m., the foyer is crowded, so much so that some people are left outside in the cold. Then the doors open and about two dozen people stream through, with purpose in their steps.
Since it's the holidays, a casual observer might assume these people waiting in line on a Saturday afternoon were queuing up for the latest "lowest price of the season" sale. But that is not the case.
They were waiting -- some more patiently than others -- to get into the Fairfield Public Library's main branch. Many who cooled, or rather warmed, their heels in the foyer were not aware that the main library doesn't open until 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
"This is just wrong," said Helen Hawthorne, who said a town the size of Fairfield should have its library open all day on Saturdays.
And until the start of the new fiscal year July 1, the library had been, as was the Fairfield Woods Branch Library.
But after the Representative Town Meeting slashed $850,000 from the contingency accounts of the 2012-13 budget, steps were taken to find that money in the town's budget. The bulk of the contingency money was there to fund retroactive pay that is part of contract agreements with municipal unions.
After the cut, only $250,000 was left in the contingency account and, at that point, only two of the town's seven union contracts had been settled. And since then, the discovery of PCB contamination at Osborn Hill School has resulted in costs of $720,000 and rising.
To save its share, as directed by First Selectman Michael Tetreau, library officials cut hours -- the main library is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, while the branch library is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Evening hours at both libraries have also been cut. The main library now closes at 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesday, rather than at 9 p.m., while the branch, normally open until 8 p.m., closes at 5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The reduction in hours saves $72,000; another $32,000 was cut from the library materials budget. The library's approved budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year was $4.4 million.
Paul Guido was the first person outside the main library doors last Saturday. He said he's at the library almost every day, and he patiently explained to those who arrived after him that it does not open until at 1 p.m.
"I think a lot of people just thought that was for the summer," Guido said of the shorter hours.
He said the shorter hours during the week and the half-day Saturday make it difficult for him to plan his schedule.
"This is an important place to a society," Hawthorne said.
Giselle Hughes said she often used the library to do research during her college studies. Two years after graduation, Hughes is now working in Hartford. Learning of the shorter weekday hours, she said, "That's a little early for me."
Because of the shortened hours, local author and educator Rita Papazian recently found herself shuttling between the branch library in the morning Saturday and the main library in the afternoon.
"This is a terrible situation for a town like Fairfield, which realized during (Superstorm Sandy) how important it was to have the library open," she said.
Papazian, who described the library as a community center, said the reduction affects every age group in town.
"We all have less access to programs, the study rooms, the collections and the computers," she said.
Papazian and friend Louise Shimkin had considered starting a petition seeking restoration of the longer hours, but as residents of the shoreline, got sidetracked by damage from the storm.
Shimkin said she's still considering starting a petition and posting it right at the library's entrance so no one misses it.
"I see them wasting money on all these other things," Shimkin said. "We put so much money into this library ... I'm sure there are a lot of people that feel like I do."
She said with the current state of the economy, the library should be open more, not fewer, hours.
Perhaps, Shimkin said, there should be a referendum on restoring the library hours, adding that it proved to be a lifeline for those without power and heat after the recent storms.
Following the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the library opened Nov. 1 for extended hours for those in town who had no power for re-charging electronics and simply to warm up. According to library statistics, there were 400 patrons per hour coming to the main library that first day. Several of those patrons left notes in the suggestion box that the library hours be restored permanently.
Comments left in the suggestion box, according to the most recent minutes from the Board of Library Trustees meeting, include:
"It is a moral outrage to deny the citizens of Fairfield, one of the most prosperous towns in one of our nation's most affluent counties, access to our library system."
"To severely limit library access penalizes our community, including those whose weekly work schedules prevent full library use."
A goal of library officials' budget proposal for 2013-14 includes restoration of the hours at both the main and branch libraries, but Library Director Karen Ronald said she doesn't know whether the necessary funding will be approved.
"It's too early in the budget process," she said. "I don't have a sense of that yet. ... We hope the selectmen will find some money to reinstate the hours before the end of this fiscal year."
Ronald said the Fairfield libraries were the busiest they ever have been last year, lending more than 1 million items.
"That's equivalent to 17 items by every resident," she said. "We were responding to need, especially in an economic downturn."
She said the hours were cut so that when the branch library is closed, the main library is open, and vice versa.
Shimkin has a suggestion for the town in terms of stretching its budget dollars -- stop allocating money for the Pequot Library in the Southport section of town. The Pequot Library, though open to the public, is a private association, and raises its own funds for the bulk of its operations. The town, however, contributes about $350,000 annually, and it works in cooperation with the town's libraries.
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