Mayor helps fill area's wish lists
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000
CLEARWATER -- In September, Interim City Manager Bill Horne asked city staff members to try to open the Countryside branch library on Sundays, making it the only library in the city with such weekend hours.
One Countryside activist had requested it, Horne said. Mayor Brian Aungst said he also had heard pleas from residents for the service. "Can we make this work?" Horne asked his assistant manager.
Apparently, with a little prodding from the mayor, the answer is yes.
The commission will vote this month on whether to begin the Sunday service at the city's most-used branch library.
The mayor isn't bashful about how he promoted the idea for the northeast Clearwater neighborhood in which he and Horne both live.
"They don't ask for much up here, although they pay a lot of taxes while we're dealing with issues in other areas, like the beach and downtown," Aungst said. "I don't feel ashamed to bring it forward, because it's been out there and residents have pushed it for years."
Sunday library service isn't the only Countryside issue Aungst has championed. This spring, the mayor urged city officials behind the scenes to budget $500,000 for an expansion of the Countryside Recreation Center. It's now under design.
The mayor also has urged a study that could lead to extending reclaimed-water service to Countryside, where about half the residents desire it, according to a 1999 city telephone survey.
But the city hadn't planned to provide Countryside with reclaimed water before, because the area is sprinkled with private wells. Extension of reclaimed water to Countryside could keep some other neighborhoods, such as North Greenwood and Morningside, from getting it.
In addition, city administrators are looking for grant money to landscape medians along Countryside Boulevard. And they are planning to address a few other projects requested on a wish list that Countryside residents created two years ago.
City officials say that their efforts to tackle Countryside's needs are more than just the result of Aungst's advocacy. Countryside is one of many neighborhoods the city wants to improve, Horne said, although Clearwater's efforts to remake the city's beach or redevelop downtown generally get more publicity.
"There's a perception sometimes that our focus is elsewhere," Horne said. "Our job is to convince everyone that our focus is on the entire city."
Aungst is sensitive about how his efforts on behalf of Countryside could be portrayed as neighborhood pork-barreling. He notes that he has supported projects in other areas, such as a new recreation center in North Greenwood, downtown redevelopment and a better bike trail through east Clearwater.
"Health and public safety issues, and the revitalization of economic areas, in my mind are the priorities, but we can't ignore the neighborhoods," Aungst said. "I've tried to be a champion for causes across the city."
Library Director John Szabo says that new funding became available this year, allowing officials to consider expanding Countryside library hours. It will cost about $58,000 annually to hire two part-time librarians and two part-time library assistants to staff the Countryside branch library from 1 to 5 p.m. every Sunday, starting in January.
Szabo said the mayor has been very involved, inquiring about the progress of the project. But Szabo said that Sunday service, available at libraries in five other Pinellas County cities, truly is needed at Countryside.
City statistics show that the Countryside branch has the most registered patrons, the highest circulation and the most reference questions compared with other city libraries, including the main library downtown. It also is the branch with the most vocal group of patrons asking for Sundays.
"I'm convinced that the Countryside library would be very well used, very busy, if it were to be open Sundays," Szabo said.
Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, a Countryside resident who used to serve on the City Commission, is among those people thrilled to hear about the library hours.
She says that there has been a perception that Countryside was the city's newest neighborhood, so it didn't need as much attention.
But the fact is that Countryside pays more property taxes than either of the city's beach communities, and constitutes roughly one sixth of the city's property value, according to county records.
Yet according to that 1999 city survey, only about 40 percent of Countryside residents believe the city provides them with their fair share of projects and services.
After Mike Roberto became city manager and moved to Countryside, the city held a "visioning" session to try to help the neighborhood define what it wanted. In addition to Sunday library hours, a top priority was to expand the Countryside Recreation Center, a community focal point since 1996.
Roberto and Aungst worked behind the scenes to have city staff members study the recreation center issue. And this year, city commissioners earmarked $500,000 in Penny for Pinellas money for it.
The next step in November is for the city to hire a builder to add 4,300 square feet to the Countryside center, the city's newest and largest.
The expansion will more than double the size of the center's fitness room and add a large multipurpose area that can be used for classes and neighborhood banquets, said Kevin Dunbar, the city's parks and recreation director.
"The mayor very, very much believed in the expansion of the center, but he didn't call us up and say, "Use that money for the center,' " Dunbar said. "We brought it forward and saw the best use of those dollars, and he kind of worked with us to make sure it went through."
Another issue that Aungst has put on the table is extending reclaimed water.
Aungst explained at a meeting this fall that restrictions have limited the use of private wells to one day a week in Countryside, and some residents now want unlimited reclaimed water for their lawns.
But the problem is this: According to a 1998 study of the city's reclaimed-water capabilities, the city has an estimated 18-million gallons of reclaimed water that it can distribute among neighborhoods.
Not every place can get the service. Already, the city's list of neighborhoods that will receive the water calls for 23-million gallons daily.
Usually, only 25 percent to 40 percent of a city can have reclaimed-water service, said Bob Brotherton, Dunedin's public utilities director, because it takes about four homes to flush enough wastewater to create one home's lawn irrigation water.
Although beach communities are getting reclaimed water first, neighborhoods last on the list are North Greenwood and Morningside. Neighborhoods not even included are Countryside and a chunk of south Clearwater west of Belcher Road.
But now the city has initiated a $32,400 study primarily to evaluate the possibility of putting Countryside on the list, a memo states.
To do that, the study will look at re-ranking all neighborhoods on the list, says Kevin Becotte, the city's utilities director.
Countryside has a few other priorities yet to be attended to. For instance, there are no funds to expand Countryside's children's library. A bike path down Landmark Drive has been postponed for funding until 2008-2009.
John Wiser, one of Countryside's most involved residents, considers the bike path to be a safety issue because kids travel the road to two schools.
"We still want certain things to be brought to the forefront like that," Wiser said. "They still need to be addressed in the next year or two."
Wiser, a caterer, once came to a City Commission meeting with dog bones to encourage officials to throw his neighborhood a few bones in their budgets. Recently, he was among those calling for Sunday library hours.
Wiser thinks the mayor should get some credit for pushing that and other projects through City Hall, but he doesn't emphasize that too much.
"I don't think he wants to show favoritism, so I think he's trying to be fair to all areas. He's doing the best he can," Wiser said.
City administrators such as Bill Horne and Kevin Dunbar also get high marks from residents for listening to their concerns.
"Coming from zero, it doesn't take much," said Bud Elias, a 24-year resident of Countryside who has an insurance marketing company. "But they've been very receptive.
"Before, we were far away and nobody heard us, and I would say the administrations always focused on the beach and Clearwater proper. But now we've got a number of people who are active and trying to make a change, and they've heard the concerns that we have, and over the past couple of years, we're finally getting their attention."
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