If need arises, library on the beach can go

By Times editorial
Published April 10, 2007

Let the bartering and protesting begin! Clearwater officials have started their deliberations on the 2007-2008 fiscal year budget with a conversation about items that might be cut to keep city costs down. They created a Budget Task Force of residents to contribute its ideas to the conversation.

Merely days after the task force submitted its ideas for cuts, a city employee union already has held a public demonstration to protest any cuts in employee pay and benefits, and a Clearwater Beach resident is threatening to lead a petition drive against closing the Clearwater Beach branch library.

Beach resident Suzanne Boschen collected several hundred signatures to save the beach branch library from being shut down in 2003 and says she will do it again if officials pursue a Budget Task Force recommendation to consolidate or close the facility.

"This is insane in a community where we're paying this much in property taxes and we can't hang onto a library," she said.

It's a sad thing to close a library - any library. There may be better places to cut the city budget. However, if cutting the library department budget is a necessity, the beach library is the facility that ought to go.

Despite the addition of tourists who drop in, the beach library gets less use than any of the city's five libraries - even less than the sadly under-utilized North Greenwood branch library. In 2006, the beach facility had 41,109 visitors, compared with 49,799 for North Greenwood, 335,955 for the East branch, 372,569 for the Countryside branch, and 341,860 for the Main Library downtown.

The beach library is just across the Intracoastal Waterway from downtown's spectacular Main Library - about a 3-mile trip - yet some beach residents don't want to travel over the bridge to go there. Those residents prefer the beach branch's 3,300 square feet in a leased storefront on Mandalay Avenue to the 90,000-square-foot Main Library designed by a nationally known architect and commanding an impressive waterfront view on the downtown bluff.

In 2003, beach residents said it just takes too long to get to the Main Library during certain times of the year when traffic to the beach is heavy. That the Main Library has evening hours, when beach traffic is light, did not appease those protesting closure of the beach branch. Neither did an idea to put a book return box in the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center so residents could return books without having to drive over the bridge.

Boschen implies that Clearwater Beach residents aren't getting their money's worth for the taxes they pay.

Yet Clearwater Beach residents enjoy close proximity to the city's top amenity, its award-winning public beach. Beach residents also will be in the best position to enjoy Beach Walk, a public plaza and promenade now under construction. Clearwater Beach has its own recreation center, which many Clearwater neighborhoods do not have; a fishing pier; a great children's playground; visible police patrols, and is the site of many city-sponsored events.

Clearwater Library director Barbara Pickell has suggested an alternative to closing the beach branch. Her plan is to close the storefront that costs $60,000 a month to rent, and instead open a smaller library in the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center.

That proposal might be more politically palatable, but it has some negatives. The city would have to build an 800-square-foot expansion on the rec center and renovate part of the center at a cost of about $400,000. Also, the beach branch would have to share staff with the North Greenwood branch, requiring that the beach library operate in the mornings and North Greenwood in the afternoons.

Clearwater City Council members face some tough choices this budget year as they focus on the bottom line. What to do about the beach library is only one of them.