BUDA, Texas (STPNS) -- Buda funds almost 90 percent of the library budget with city funds, but only 25 percent of library patrons live within city limits and pay municipal property tax, staff members say.

Those numbers have led some Buda officials to consider charging a library user fee of Hays County residents.

"We need to re-slice the pie," said Councilmember Tom Crouse.

So far, the discussion hasn't made it beyond the realm of theory. The city cannot charge county residents to use the library as long as the city accepts any library funds from the county. Tuesday night, councilmembers unanimously approved another library contract with the county, meaning the Buda library won't charge a non-resident fee in the upcoming year.

But it's still a possibility in the future, Crouse said.

"It's something we'll definitely look at, depending on what the county does," Crouse said. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Let's hope we can work something out with the county."

The city will pick up the tab for about $290,000 of the library's $330,000 operating budget in the 2008-09 Fiscal Year, and the county will contribute just under $30,000.

"The key issue is more about being under-funded by the county," said Buda Counilmember Cathy Chilcote. "If we're going to continue to provide services for out-of-city residents we need the county to step up to the plate."

Chilcote says she thinks the county needs to pick up more of the tab, but doesn't believe Buda should charge residents who live just outside city limits.

"On a personal level, I believe a library is one of those services you just have to provide," Chilcote said. "Charging people for a library card, I think there's something ethically wrong with that."

The possibility of charging non-resident fees to county residents brought a visceral response from local library supporters such as Neva Lockett, president of the Friends of the Buda Library.

"I have always felt, as do many people who love libraries, that the whole point of the library is to be free, as a source of information and research and culture available to the whole community," Lockett said. "Libraries are free. Period."

Nancy Turner, director of Library Media Services for Hays CISD, said many school kids use the municipal libraries on the weekends or over the summer, and having to pay for that access could drastically impact the amount of research or reading they could do.

"I would be very concerned," Turner said. "We're all trying very hard to make sure the kid in our community get the best education they can, and having a library they can access is so important for that."

Even if the school kids got free library cards while the parents had to pay, that would likely decrease the number of trips the family would take to the library, Turner said.

"These are the families that are not going to have multiple vehicles," Turner said. "The students most in need are those who are least likely to be able to pay ... Personally, I find it very upsetting. Having money get in the way of access to learning just hurts."

Gloria Meraz, director of communications for the Texas Library Association, said that rather than charging fees to non-residents, many libraries in the state are establishing programs such as TexShare, which allows library users to borrow books from any participating branch.

"The trend in Texas is definitely to remove non-resident fees," Meraz said. "There's an increased awareness that people are very mobile, and a growing sense of reciprocity."

But many libraries are feeling the pinch of the nationwide financial crisis. Buda's sales tax revenues, the city's main source of income, declined by about $400,000 this year even as the population increased.

"It's a tough economic times," Meraz said. "Governments at all levels are looking at how funds are spent. But it's really important to look at the other side. During hard economic times people use public libraries more than ever. I guess I would wonder how much money is actually going to be saved, as opposed to the educational fallout of people who need access to resources and aren't able to get them."

The city does charge a one-time $15 fee for residents outside Hays County. Last year, that amounted to $670 in revenue for the library.

"I think it would be difficult for our staff to be able to gather the $30,000 from charging patrons," said Buda Librarian Marjorie Martinez. "I think that people here involved with the library would like to continue to see it be a free service for the community, where everyone has equal access."