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    Future of senior center rests on quarter-mill tax


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

    When the new Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center opened in November 1999, the volunteers who had worked so hard to make it happen couldn't believe their luck.

    The $1.3-million center on 16th Street was nicer than anything they had envisioned. The county built it, using Penny for Pinellas sales tax dollars and state grants, then leased the building and the 8-acre wooded property back to them for a paltry sum.

    The future looked rosy.

    But only a month after the doors opened, officials from the center were sitting in the office of then-County Administrator Fred Marquis lamenting the state of the center's budget and seeking money.

    What happened?

    Granted, the center had no history on which to base a budget for the first year of operation.

    But planning for the center's operating needs clearly was inadequate. The volunteers, most of them elderly, who had led the campaign expected the center's needs could be met through donations, fundraisers such as a monthly breakfast, and fees. They were woefully uninformed about what would be required.

    In the first year, not only were the bills for utilities and other expenses higher than projected and the need for staff greater than planned, seniors on limited incomes balked at paying a $25 membership fee and additional fees for each class or program they participated in.

    Today, this beautiful public facility is struggling, despite the efforts of volunteers and a well-meaning staff of two. The center is losing $3,000 a month, has only half the members it expected to have at this point, can't attract enough people to fee-based programs and is staying afloat only by bleeding money from a reserve fund that was intended to pay future capital costs.

    The salvation of this facility, say center officials, is contained in the last question Palm Harbor voters will see on the Nov. 7 ballot.

    The question asks whether a property tax of up to one-quarter mill should be levied on Palm Harbor property owners to support the operations of the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center.

    The full one-quarter mill would generate almost $600,000, but center officials say they don't need nearly that much, so they will ask in the beginning for slightly less than one-eighth of a mill. A quarter-mill tax on a home valued at $125,000 with a $25,000 homestead exemption would be about $25 year; one-eighth mill would be about $12.50.

    With the tax money, center officials say they could eliminate the $25 membership fee, lower the fees for programs, add additional employees so the center could offer more programming at night and on weekends, and build a bigger parking lot.

    Residents of Palm Harbor, an unincorporated community, already pay two other quarter-mill taxes, one to fund the Palm Harbor Library and the other for recreation. Both taxes were approved by voters years ago and are administered by the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, an appointed board that holds regular public meetings.

    Some senior citizens in Palm Harbor believe that they should have received more benefit from the recreation tax, but the lion's share of that money goes for youth recreation facilities and programs. The seniors have been left with little in the way of public facilities and programs that met their needs.

    The Senior Activity Center was a first step toward serving those needs. Today the facility also is becoming a community gathering place. Weddings, receptions, birthday parties, neighborhood association meetings, public forums and other types of activities that attract all ages have been held there in recent months. Even former first lady Barbara Bush will visit the center this week for a campaign event expected to attract hundreds.

    To their credit, center officials recognize the advantages of broadening the center's appeal to a wider age group. A new YMCA is planned next door, and already senior center officials are talking with the Y about sharing programming and facilities.

    Palm Harbor residents have a choice. They can refuse to vote for another quarter-mill tax and watch this facility, built with public money on public property, falter or even eventually fail. Palm Harbor seniors will be right back where they started.

    Or, residents can acknowledge the need of the seniors for public tax support for these worthwhile programs. With the extra money and the oversight of the Community Services Agency and county, the center's operations and financial planning should improve.

    The Times recommends a yes vote.

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