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    Board revisits library, hospice

    Commissioners approve next year's budget but can't let go of two issues that many thought had been resolved.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 11, 2002

    LARGO -- At one moment, commissioners called for hardball tactics with the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.

    Later, they retraced firm strides made in June by proposing to trim money and space from a $22-million library six of them had approved with resounding certainty.

    Just about the only easy decision Tuesday night was approving the city's $108-million budget and keeping the property tax rate the same as it has been since 1992.

    After that, the meeting dragged on into the night as commissioners questioned and bickered over two issues many thought to be resolved weeks ago.

    Both debates seemed to be initiated by Commissioner Pat Burke.

    She called for ending negotiations with the hospice, after the nonprofit failed to give the commission an answer Tuesday on whether it wanted to buy part of the 2.6 acres off East Bay Drive. City Manager Steven Stanton said the hospice asked for another week.

    She called for removing the hospice's potential bid from consideration and opening the entire property to other developers.

    "We now need to clear the table and go forward," Burke said. "In regard to hospice, I think their silence is (apparent). ... . I really wish they made the decision, and we wouldn't have to."

    Mayor Bob Jackson said the commission should not make decisions during a work session. Burke refused to relent, but agreed to put it on the agenda. She accused Jackson of creating confusion over the property by lobbying on behalf of the hospice.

    Commissioner Pat Gerard supported the move, saying the city should no longer be "held hostage" by feeling obligated to give the hospice all or part of the property.

    "We are telling you tonight, it's over," Burke said to Jackson.

    "That's two of you, and it's a work session," Jackson replied.

    The commission ultimately put an item on next week's agenda proposing Burke's request to cut the hospice out.

    "I can tell you right now, I cannot support that without hearing from hospice," Jackson told Burke.

    "Well, then you can wait another year," Burke replied. "I can't believe they did not come forward (tonight)."

    Later in the evening, the city's architect showed how he could pare the library's cost by almost $1.1-million by cutting 2,700 square feet from the originally 93,000-square-foot design.

    That would get the total price under $21-million.

    "Is this the best that we can do, with the request we made?" Burke asked, referring to requests made during July meetings between the architect and individual commissioners.

    Jackson again took exception.

    "I think you should couch that in terms of the request 'you' made," he said to Burke before saying he's heard nothing but support in the community for the 93,000-square-foot library.

    "You speak to one group of people; I hear from another," Burke replied. "No one I've talked to objects to the library. They were concerned by the amount we were spending."

    That was a departure from what the commission did in June, when it approved the large library before a packed audience, many of whom did not support the project. Only Commissioner Marty Shelby objected to plans for the 93,000-square-foot library, saying it should go to a public referendum instead.

    The debate returned Tuesday. The work session on the library was scheduled for 40 minutes, but lasted nearly two hours.

    Commissioners pondered shrinking the library to 84,000 square feet. They talked about eliminating rooms and even considered scrapping most of a $2-million budget for furniture. They questioned the role of a professional fund raiser, who was hired by the city and had yet to pin down what they should expect to raise.

    Many of the cuts proposed could be made up with public donations, commissioners said, echoing an idea earlier stated by the architect.

    Shelby again questioned public support for the project, wondering how they could be certain without knowing exactly how much the public was willing to contribute.

    "I'm looking for a gauge," Shelby said. "The commission did not see my alternative as sufficient."

    In the end, commissioners opted to follow the architect's recommendation by putting the original recommendation on the agenda. That would reduce the library slightly to 90,300 square feet, and the cost to under $21-million.

    "We cannot open a building without furniture," Burke said. "That's a ridiculous concept."

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