Branch back on chopping block

A task force's answers to money woes are for the beach library to consolidate or close.

Published April 9, 2007

Public cries four years ago saved the Clearwater Beach library from closing its doors.

That might not work this time.

With state lawmakers in Tallahassee threatening to change how much money local governments can raise through property taxes, Clearwater is joining other Florida cities in already hunting for ways to cut costs.

Among the ideas proposed last week by a budget review task force composed of residents: Either consolidate the city's small beach library with the beach recreation center or shut it down entirely.

While it's just one of many suggestions made by the task force, it's one that library officials have already considered proposing.

Library director Barbara Pickell says the city should consolidate the library with the recreation center, but also share library staffs between the beach and North Greenwood branches, because those are the least used of the city's five branches.

She said those moves would save more than $200,000, but it would mean closing the beach branch during the afternoons and North Greenwood during the mornings.

But it's a way to keep the beach branch open, she said.

"It would be a smaller facility for us, but it's the only alternative to ensure a future for the library" on the beach, Pickell said. "We can't afford to buy property on the beach and build a library. But this would give us a place where we can still have a viable, attractive little library."

City leaders like Mayor Frank Hibbard say they like the plan, calling it "a win-win for everybody" if "we can service the people on the beach and reduce costs."

But city leaders know they're also going to be in for a fight.

Suzanne Boschen, who collected more than 300 signatures to save the library in 2003, when cost-cutting measures threatened the branch then, said she's ready to do it again. Beach residents have complained that particularly during tourist season, it takes too long for them to get to the mainland library branches due to traffic.

"This is insane in a community where we're paying this much in property taxes and we can't hang onto a library," said Boschen, 59, a north Clearwater Beach resident who visits the library regularly.

"I can't get over how every developer can get everything they want and the people are footing the bill for the infrastructure and Clearwater can't hang onto their little, tiny library," she said.

The current beach branch is tucked inside a pink strip mall on Mandalay Avenue that also includes an Outback Steakhouse, a few restaurants, shops and offices. The city pays $60,000 a year to lease about 3,300 square feet.

The library features two public computers, 12,000 books and hundreds of CDs and movies. In addition, it has magazines, newspapers and jigsaw puzzles.

Under a plan to consolidate the beach library with the recreation center, the city would spend about $400,000 to renovate and build an 800-square-foot expansion. The result would still be about half the space of the library's current location.

Pickell said the new, smaller location would focus on the popular items, like movies and fiction books.