Rays of optimism in dark clouds of budgets

Published August 3, 2007

Anyone following the economic news in Florida these days would be struck by how much of it is negative. Residents are struggling to make ends meet, local governments are cutting recreation programs and library hours, the state budget for next year is in the red, and home insurance rates have skyrocketed.

Yet retrenchment isn't always the order of the day. Some local government officials are finding ways to offer new programs and face the future with optimism instead of pessimism.

Safety Harbor offers an example. At 15,000 square feet, the Safety Harbor Public Library has been too small and overcrowded for years. So city officials have been putting aside money for a 9,300-square-foot expansion of the building and have hired an architect to begin work on the design.

Then came this summer's state-mandated tax cuts, and a couple of city commissioners began to get cold feet about building the library addition. They wondered if the city ought to hold a referendum on the expansion idea.

Other commissioners prevailed and the expansion stayed in the city budget. Safety Harbor is a small town, and the library is an important part of the services it offers - Mayor Andy Steingold called it "a rock in the community." With a library that was so undersized, the city wasn't able to offer its residents the same kinds of library programs and facilities that residents of other Pinellas cities are enjoying. Commissioners seem determined to fix that problem.

Tarpon Springs, another small city in North Pinellas, recently approved a public art ordinance - perhaps an uncommon issue to take up in these days of budget cutting and scraping for funds for necessary city services.

The ordinance requires private developers of projects worth more than $1-million to spend 1 percent of the project budget on public art, or make a contribution to the city's public art fund.

The city has to abide by the ordinance as well. Individuals building their own homes and developers of affordable housing projects are exempt from the ordinance. A public arts committee will oversee the program and the selection of art projects.

The City Commission unanimously approved the art ordinance, even though Tarpon Springs, like other cities throughout Florida, has had to trim its budget. Commissioners pointed out that a public art program can make a city more interesting and attractive for residents and tourists and even enhance the city's opportunity to attract new businesses and new residents. The ordinance also helps to create a supportive environment for Tarpon Springs' thriving arts community.

Expanding a library or installing public art might have been routine actions for local governments before this year, but this is a new day in Florida. Now, those decisions require officials to take the optimistic position that times will get better in Florida and that quality of life for those who live here still matters.