St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Libraries caught in funding fairness feud

The East Lake library's unique status has some questioning how money from the county library cooperative is divvied up.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


The East Lake Community Library is the newest library in Pinellas County, and, with its quaint bungalow-style building, one of the smallest.

But the East Lake library also is at the center of a battle for limited dollars. Its opponents say that if East Lake gets what it wants, that could undermine a decade-old cooperative agreement that allows residents in unincorporated Pinellas County to use libraries in nearby cities.

With a deadline in January to renew the agreement for the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, the debate came to a boil at a County Commission meeting last week.

On one side were East Lake library supporters who contended that East Lake residents aren't getting their fair share of funding from the cooperative.

The problem is, more money for East Lake means less money for all of the other libraries in the cooperative.

Representatives of several libraries questioned whether East Lake ought to be getting any funding at all. The East Lake library was not a part of the original cooperative agreement signed in 1989.

In Largo, city commissioners are concerned enough that they have directed their attorney to research whether the library cooperative board overstepped its bounds when it provided $175,000 to the East Lake library this year. The Friends of East Lake Library wants the support to be increased to $200,000 next year.

The problem was created by the unique position East Lake library holds.

The co-op was formed in 1989 as a way for residents in unincorporated Pinellas County to use neighboring city libraries that had been paid for by city residents. Residents in the unincorporated areas voted in favor of paying a half-mill of property tax to the cooperative, which then would distribute the money to the member libraries around the county. A half-mill tax equals 50 cents in tax for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property value. That's $50 a year for a $125,000 home with a $25,000 Homestead Exemption.

This year, the library co-op will split up more than $5-million from the county and state among its 15 members: Clearwater, Largo, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs, Seminole, St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach, Gulfport, Pinellas Park, the Gulf beaches library, the Pinellas Talking Book Library -- and East Lake.

The problem is when the co-op was born, no new libraries were contemplated.

But as East Lake's population swelled, so too did demand for its own library. Even so, East Lake voters rejected two referendums to create a tax to fund a library.

Nevertheless, East Lake was able to obtain a state grant to build one. Now a year old, it is operated as a branch of the Palm Harbor Library.

Further complicating the issue for East Lake is that the co-op's funding formula is based largely on the amount of money that local communities dedicate to their libraries. Consequently, it rewards communities that choose to spend more on their libraries.

Thus, because no local tax dollars in East Lake are dedicated for operation of the library, East Lake does not fit into the co-op's funding formula. Recognizing that East Lake needed money to operate, the co-op's board of directors decided to give East Lake up to $200,000 and then to divide the rest of the funding among the other 14 co-op members.

Representatives of the East Lake Library argue $200,000 isn't enough and isn't fair.

East Lake property owners pay a total of about $800,000 annually into the co-op. They got back $175,000.

"That is a disparity and an inequity," attorney Bryan Kutchins of East Lake said.

Cherie Gaynor, chairwoman of the Friends of East Lake Library, said as the population in East Lake continues to grow, the library would like to grow, too. The library is 4,500 square feet, though the property allows for expansion up to 20,000 square feet, she said.

"We have had trouble justifying to our patrons the size of the library," Gaynor said.

And as small as it is, the library is only half-full with books and other materials. Its supporters also would like to add staff to keep the library open more often, Gaynor said.

Neighboring library officials said they do not begrudge East Lake its need to grow, but they resent that it could be done at the expense of all the other libraries. Co-op funding provides the incentive for cities to open their library doors to patrons who live outside their city limits.

"Clearly, the proposed agreement by the co-op board raised the specter of endangering the cooperative," said Largo City Commissioner Marty Shelby said. "Any money diverted away from the formula severely affects Largo."

What's more, Largo officials question whether the co-op board had the authority to give money to East Lake in the first place. Signing a co-op agreement renewal with the money for East Lake included would only legitimize those improper payments, he said.

Shelby and others also worry that if other libraries are built -- in places like Tierra Verde, Feather Sound or High Point -- a precedent will have been set with East Lake, and the co-op pot could be diluted even further.

"Maybe the cooperative is inadequate for the future," Shelby said.

John Szabo, director of the Clearwater public library system, said the situation may not be so dire.

Szabo is convinced a compromise can be reached, such as setting a funding limit for East Lake, as well as an expiration date.

But he disputes the East Lake argument that it hasn't gotten its fair share from the cooperative.

Before the East Lake Library was built, residents of East Lake enjoyed, and still enjoy, library privileges at all of the other co-op libraries, particularly those in Palm Harbor, Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs, Safety Harbor and Countryside.

For now, the issue has put the co-op agreement on hold.

"Right now, the co-op is in no-man's-land with regard to East Lake," said Bernadette Storck, administrator of the library co-op. "This has kind of thrown a monkey wrench into things."

First, Storck said, county attorneys will have to decide whether the co-op board has the authority to provide funding to East Lake.

Perhaps, she said, East Lake could be funded with county money outside the cooperative. Otherwise, she said, they will have to devise a way to build East Lake into the formula.

"I'd like to see us continue to support East Lake," Storck said. "I don't want to see the library close."

East Lake has one strong ally on the County Commission in Susan Latvala. Her husband, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, was instrumental in securing the state grant to build the East Lake Library. East Lake also received $100,000 from the co-op, as well as a $100,000 loan. The rest was paid through private donations.

"When the co-op formed, East Lake wasn't a viable entity," Susan Latvala said.

The people of East Lake came together and got a library built, she said, and so they deserve equal services.

"Times have changed and that agreement needs to change accordingly," Latvala said.

Latvala recommended a clause be added to the co-op agreement to include East Lake, but to keep it out of the formula.

"They're an exception," Latvala said. "A special case that needs to be dealt with."

That's not fair to the cities that have invested a lot of money to make the co-op work, said Maureen Freaney, Dunedin assistant city manager.

"We are, in a sense, changing the rules," Freaney said.

East Lake's Bryan Kutchins says one solution might be to ask Palm Harbor to expand its taxing district boundaries to include East Lake. That would provide library and recreation funding, he said. It also would ensure that a larger share of local tax dollars stay local. As an alternative, he said, the County Commission could create a special taxing district for East Lake.

Steve Putnam, chairman of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency that oversees the Palm Harbor Library, believes East Lake voters will ultimately have to pass a referendum to tax themselves for library services.

Until that time, he said, East Lake ought to get adequate support from the co-op.

"Clearly, as East Lake grows, we need to get more money into that situation there," Putnam said.

- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.