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    Library's new mystery: Where is the cash?

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2001


    LARGO -- They've picked out a place for it. They are pretty sure how big they want it to be.

    Now, the question is: How are they going to pay for it?

    City commissioners Tuesday night voted to build a new library in Largo Central Park, near the Largo Cultural Center. They also agreed it should be a 65,000-square-foot facility with an additional 28,000 square feet of vacant space for future use.

    But commissioners know the process of funding its construction will be a much thornier issue.

    "We've had our faces pressed against the store window. Now, we have to go look at our piggybank," said Commissioner Marty Shelby.

    Unfortunately for commissioners, there appears to be little change in the piggybank for it. Commissioners initially supported building a 93,000-square-foot library, but they were not happy with its $20-million price tag. By approving a building with 28,000 square feet of vacant space instead of creating a 93,000-square-foot library, commissioners sliced about $3-million off the projected construction cost.

    Still, the city does not have $17-million lying around.

    City officials have proposed some of the money will come from grants and donations, but that would only provide a portion of the cost. City Manager Steven Stanton has suggested borrowing against future Penny for Pinellas funds, which has also been referred to as debt-financing, to pay for construction. Since city officials had been working off the $20-million price tag for a new library, Stanton said staff members will have to redo their math to determine how much to borrow.

    Shelby is uncomfortable with the idea.

    "A good portion of your capital is consumed to pay the interest," he said. "The other reason is that it is less money available in the future if circumstances change and I believe debt-financing should be limited to essential projects when there are no alternatives."

    Shelby stressed that he is not against a new library, but he wonders whether residents are in favor of a new building. A St. Petersburg Times poll last year found Largo residents were virtually split on the need for a new library.

    Shelby suggested a referendum might be in order to gauge support among residents.

    "I don't know if there is community support for a $17-million building that would cost at least $500,000 (a year) to operate," he said.

    Mayor Bob Jackson visited the current library Wednesday and said a new facility is desperately needed. He said the shelves were full and a host of activities were going on.

    Jackson said he does not see the need for a referendum. He would back borrowing to build a library, calling it a choice between long-term or short-term financing.

    "That library serves the greatest cross section of anything we offer," he said.

    Another option discussed is to wait each year for Penny for Pinellas funds and build slowly over time. But commissioners and the city's staff want to get the project done quickly. A study in late 1999 concluded Largo will need a 93,000-square-foot library by 2010.

    Commissioner Pat Burke said she recognizes the current library of about 36,000 square feet needs a touch-up, but she does not see the need for a new building. She dismissed remarks by a city-hired architect that more space is needed for electronic equipment.

    "To build a huge building based upon the size of desks they need for computers is ludicrous," she said. "It just boggles my mind."

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