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Stance on libraries must change for public's sake

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By JEFF WEBB, Hernando Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

Read 'em and weep.

Based on a year-old population figure of 132,762, Hernando County has fewer library books per resident (1.65) than the state average (1.8). The county also spends significantly less on its library staff ($9.30 per capita) than the state average ($12.49).

But the most telling, and most disappointing, statistic is that Hernando County libraries have only a little more than half the square footage (0.24 per capita) of the state average (0.41).

After being a very low priority for the past decade, some changes are in store. Times staff writer Will Van Sant reported last week that county officials plan to build an addition to the West Hernando/S.T. Foggia Branch at State Road 50 and Deltona Boulevard in Spring Hill. They also plan to build a relatively small 8,500-square-foot library on State Road 50 near Ridge Manor West. That facility will replace the rented 6,000-square-foot East Hernando Branch.

The cost of those projects is a little less than $1.4-million. The money will come from impact fees collected on new construction.

That's wonderful news. Improvements to the county's libraries are long overdue. But taxpayers who can read between the lines will see that the effort still falls short of the need.

It has taken years for the county to accumulate enough money from impact fees to pay for these improvements. That's because part of the money has been used for other expenses, such as buying books and computer terminals with Internet access. But it's mostly because there's just not much money coming in that is dedicated for libraries.

When someone builds a detached single-family home, he pays $4,798 in impact fees, which is up-front compensation for the impact that home and its residents will have on the county's infrastructure. That includes fire and police services, roads, parks, schools and libraries.

But, of that $4,798, only $95 goes toward improving libraries. This year that will generate only about $125,000. It's easy to see why the county can't rely on impact fees -- at least not at the current rate -- to build new libraries.

But the County Commission can't arbitrarily raise the portion of impact fees for libraries. The state-mandated formula requires that the county spend money on libraries in order to collect more. It's a variation of the "You've got to spend money to make money" adage.

The time has come that the county cannot put off building a new library. Check that. The time has come and gone.

It's been almost nine years since there was any serious talk about building a new library. There was one planned for the south side of Spring Hill Drive between Waterfall Drive and Mariner Boulevard, but the commission got cold feet during the 1994 election year and instead of issuing bonds to pay for the $5.6-million facility, put it on the ballot. Voters, misled by the hyperbole of a group of antigovernment naysayers who labeled the project a luxurious "Taj Mahal," rejected the referendum by just 146 votes.

For my money, it's one of the darkest moments in Hernando County's voting history. The commission was indecisive and cowardly for relinquishing its responsibility to fill a fundamental need of its constituents. After that, the outcome of the vote demonstrated a surprising lack of commitment by residents to improve the county's quality of life. Everyone knows that libraries -- like good roads, schools, parks and safety -- are an essential ingredient is a community's success. A quality library system is a sensible and lasting investment, and for those who place a premium on such things, it makes the county more marketable.

The need for a new library was there nine years ago, and it remains today. The county still owns the property on Spring Hill Drive. There may be a better place. Whenever it gets around to it, my only suggestion is that the county build in a spot that can be accessed without crossing a major highway.

We all know money is tight, but as the commissioners begin to juggle the county budget, they need to at least discuss a long-term plan to build a new library.

Hernando County cannot continue to lag behind the rest of the state in categories as important as this, while residents who know better fail to press the point with their elected representatives.

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