Washington County's libraries, struggling for cash, could shrink to six locations next year under a diminished budget.

Branches at Marine on St. Croix and Newport could close, and another at Lake Elmo will be transferred to the city if a dispute over reduced hours and services continues.

Because of cutbacks in state funding allotments to counties, Library Director Patricia Conley said, the county now has "insufficient" money to keep all of its nine branches open. The $476,400 shortfall from 2011 to 2012 hastens the county's decision to consolidate more services at larger libraries and turn smaller branches over to community partnerships, she said.

The greater share of that loss in revenue -- $260,100 -- is what was levied against Lake Elmo taxpayers in 2011 for county library services. Just how that scenario plays out depends on negotiations with Lake Elmo city leaders and decisions in the final county budget, which will be voted on in December.

Washington County has bigger "destination" libraries in Woodbury, Forest Lake and Cottage Grove that will remain open 46.5 hours a week. Libraries in Oakdale and Mahtomedi will stay open 37.5 hours a week, and another in Lakeland for 20 hours a week.

Stillwater and Bayport have city-funded libraries but work in partnership with Washington County libraries.

Conley, in a presentation to the County Board last week, said revenue will fall because of reductions in state aid and the possible secession of Lake Elmo from the county library system. The proposed $5.6 million levy for 2012 will mean that libraries lose the equivalent of five and a half full-time jobs and a 24 percent loss in total hours of service. No county libraries will be open Sundays and Mondays under the scenario presented last week.

Lake Elmo's lingering unhappiness with the county's handling of its branch library led to a recent City Council resolution declaring an intent to create a city library instead.

Mayor Dean Johnston, invited to address the County Board after Conley's budget presentation, said the city prefers to work out its disagreements with the county. But he also protested the end of children's story time at the library and said the county was "trying to discourage people from using Lake Elmo's library."

Gary Kriesel, chairman of the County Board, took exception to that comment. "We have never ever discouraged anybody from using any library service," he said.

Johnston shot back: "I find it very disappointing that we're talking about discouraging communities from having libraries."

Kriesel said that the county could find itself in a financial squeeze if every city that had a county library followed Lake Elmo's example. Kriesel chided Johnston for moving toward a city-owned library without first consulting the County Board and said it was "premature" for county staff to negotiate with Lake Elmo for alternative services.

"The ultimate authority on whether this library remains open or closed rests up here, not with staff," Kriesel said.

Another commissioner, Dennis Hegberg, expressed concern on two points: that closing county libraries on Sundays would cause problems for students wanting to do their homework, and that low-income residents in the Landfall and Cimarron housing communities would have diminished access to library services.

"We haven't abandoned our goal of working with children," Conley said. "We're just trying to live within the limits that are set."

County library leaders also have placed more emphasis on "virtual services," meaning electronic access to collections. Washington County libraries now provide e-books and audio books, daily online homework assistance and interactive job assistance, among other such services.

Meanwhile, Lake Elmo's fate remains in limbo. Conley told commissioners that most Lake Elmo residents use the county library in Oakdale, but acknowledged that a county divorce from Lake Elmo's quaint downtown library would be painful.

"We're going to have to deny a lot of people we've worked with for a long time," she said. "It would be very emotional."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles