HUNDREDS of Hampshire librarians could be balloted on strike action in a row over jobs.

The county council is planning to axe 65 out of 463 posts to avoid a £1.3m overspend on the £18m library budget.

But the authority has pledged not to close libraries or reduce opening hours.

Shocked staff were informed by e-mail if their jobs were at risk, after the cost-cutting plan was revealed to managers and unions.

The job losses include library managers, supervisors, assistant supervisors, library officers and two prison librarians at Winchester and Gosport.

Head office posts in Winchester will also be shed, including a reference and information manager and music librarian.

Unison library steward Steve Squibbs said strike action had not been ruled out.

Mr Squibbs said: “People are angry and shocked by the scale of the cuts, not just for themselves, but also what they see as an erosion of the service to users over the last few years.

“The council sees the library service as a soft target.”

In 2007, Unison staged a twoday strike when 27 qualified librarian posts were axed and a further 17 downgraded.

The council says the latest restructure will reduce the number of managers, simplify the hierarchy, and reduce head office and support costs by a quarter.

The next two phases of cost-cutting will involve the mobile library service and the head office again. The council aims to save a total £2m.

Cllr Margaret Snaith-Tempia, executive member for culture and recreation, said: “In previous years we have had to revert to using the book fund to cover gaps which is not acceptable or sustainable.

“We have reduced costs as much as we can through vacancy management, not replacing those who have left or retired.

“But it has become inevitable that we need to reduce staffing costs.”

But Cllr Peter Chegwyn, Lib Dem opposition spokesman for libraries, said: “I think the basic problem is the library service is underfunded.

“Machines can’t do it all — there is still a need for professional, high-quality staff.”

Cllr Chegwyn claimed the library cuts had not been debated by councillors.

He added: “It has been kept under wraps until just after the General Election. The council should have been more open.”

The consultation with Unison which started earlier this month will end in July.

The announcement about library cuts comes as civic chiefs forecast a bleak future for Hampshire’s finances.

County council leader Ken Thornber said although the extent of Whitehall cuts were not yet known, the council was preparing for a “worst-case scenario”.

He said: “Our use of reserves and savings will help to smooth the impact of the public sector spending cuts to some extent to enable us to continue to provide the essential services.”

Cllr Thornber said the authority had found £34m of efficiency savings over the next two years to help plug the expected funding gap from central government.

He added: “Our drive for securing best value for money will stand us in good stead to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

However, the council is to press ahead with recruiting an £83,000- a-year spin doctor in chief — despite being without one since last summer.

The county first advertised for a head of communications last September, but was unable to find a suitable candidate.

Now it has employed Londonbased executive recruitment agency Veredus to help.

The PR boss will replace Keith Kerslake — who resigned in June 2009 to take up a new post in London — and involves leading a PR team equivalent to 18 fulltime posts to communicate the council’s services to 1.2m residents and 40,000 staff.

Christine Melsom, of anti-council tax group IsItFair, said: “I think if the council can manage without a person in the post for nearly a year, they can manage without altogether. It already has a well-staffed press office.”