Library director receives pay raise

The Palm Harbor Community Services Agency's decision took two votes and almost led to a resignation.

Published June 20, 2005

PALM HARBOR - The officials who oversee the Palm Harbor Library have embarked on what could be a major expansion of the building, but officials recently found themselves struggling with another question.

Should the salary of the library director grow too?

The directors of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency eventually decided that, yes, it should. The agency, which oversees library and recreation services for unincorporated Palm Harbor, voted to give library director Gene Coppola a raise of more than 15 percent. But the decision took two votes over two months and almost prompted the chairman of the seven-member board to resign.

The agency's board voted in May to approve a 20 percent raise, though Coppola said last week that his salary has gone from $54,696 to approximately $63,000 a year, a 15 percent raise.

The motion passed May 18 after intense discussion of the agency's voting policy, comparable library director salaries and a $5-million plan to expand the library at 2330 Nebraska Ave.

Coppola, 50, is starting his sixth year as the library's director. Even agency board members who opposed his raise praise his performance.

Board chairman Ben Gagliardo, who voted against the pay raise, said the issue was a matter of justifying the increase to taxpayers.

Agency officials have begun discussing building a two-story addition that would expand the library from 26,000 to 39,000 square feet. The added space would include a coffee shop, more computers for public use, a conference room, study rooms, a larger teen area, a secure, self-contained children's area and more room for programs on literacy, business and genealogy.

But the expansion could cost an estimated $5-million. Officials don't know where they would get that money, but they have applied for a state grant, and have discussed seeking corporate support, taking out loans and asking voters to approve an increase in the property tax they pay now for library services. Palm Harbor property owners now pay 25 cents in property taxes for every $1 of assessed, nonexempt property value for library services.

All of that, Gagliardo said, makes it the wrong time to talk about giving Coppola a big raise.

"So what do you do?" he said. "You go back to the tax people and say, "Hey, we want to build this Taj Mahal, this super Wal-Mart, and you guys have to pay for it, and meanwhile we have to pay this guy 20 percent?"'

Others, however, say that even after the increase, Coppola's salary is still low in comparison to the same position elsewhere.

"We researched and checked into the comparable salaries for people with his background and experience and he was way, way below the norm, way below for the size of our library and the number of patrons we service," said board member Madeline Oliveri.

The Palm Harbor Library serves a community of 59,248, according to Mary Brown, director of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative.

Dunedin serves 36,865 people, and its library director makes about $66,000 a year. Tarpon Springs serves 22,362, according to Brown, and the director there makes about $60,000.

When it came time for his yearly review, Coppola said he presented the library review board with a list of new services and enhancements he has brought to the library.

"Basically, what I was requesting was to receive a salary based on past performance that would be comparable to other library directors although still below average," Coppola said.

Although he said Coppola is a great director, Gagliardo said Palm Harbor doesn't have the funds that incorporated cities do.

"I'm not concerned with what the director over in Largo or Clearwater were making," Gagliardo said. "We're talking strictly Palm Harbor. We don't have that money, we don't have that structure behind us to award our directors. ... They know that going in."

But funds for the raise were found in the budget, said Oliveri.

"The man is excellent; he's outdone any other director we've had before," Oliveri said. "We're going into an expansion program to expand the size of the library. There's a lot of work we have to do."

Agency board members not only debated whether to raise Coppola's salary, but they also disagreed over how to make the decision itself.

Expanding the library could cost an estimated $5-million. Officials don't know where they would get that money, but they have applied for a state grant, and have discussed seeking corporate support, taking out loans and asking voters to approve an increase in the property tax they pay now for library services.

Gagliardo said he voted against the raise when it first came up in April. And he disagreed with the way the agency handled the issue when it came back up again in May.

In May's meeting, there was discussion of whether board members representing parks and recreation could vote on the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on library issues and vice versa. In the end, the board decided not to let members who represent parks and recreation, including Gagliardo, vote on the pay raise.

Gagliardo said he thinks the ordinance that the board followed on that vote is outdated.

"The only reason I didn't resign was I thought maybe if we can get this ordinance changed, maybe in the future things could be different," Gagliardo said.

Board member John Downes, who didn't support a 20 percent raise, said factors other than the number of people a library serves should be considered in setting Coppola's pay. Among them are how many staff people the director supervises, services being provided, the size of the library and the scope of the system being delivered.

Downes also said Coppola should get the work for the expansion done before that kind of raise goes through.

"Take us to the promised land and we'll reward you," Downes said. "But get us there first."