CLEARWATER — Last fall, the city upset some residents when it trimmed back its library hours.
That's nothing. Now, facing a $7 million to $13 million budget deficit in the coming year, the City Council began talking Thursday about more drastic steps: Closing libraries entirely.
"We're going to have to make some radical changes," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, who suggested shuttering the East Branch and North Greenwood libraries.
To ease the pain slightly, he said the city could increase the hours that the Countryside Library is open; could let east Clearwater residents know they can use St. Petersburg College's library; and could move North Greenwood's computer terminals into a nearby recreation center.
Hibbard noted that the North Greenwood Library was originally built during the era of segregation, and it's only a mile away from the city's Main Library, which is closer than many Clearwater residents have to drive to get to a library.
Council members know that shutting down libraries would be an unpopular move, but they feel they may have little choice. The combination of the global economic crisis and Florida's voter-mandated property tax cuts are putting Clearwater's budget deep in the hole.
"If we've got real pressure on the budget and we just don't have the revenues, we've got to look seriously at closing libraries, as unpopular as it will be," said City Manager Bill Horne. "It doesn't mean it has to be closed forever, but we've got to get to that number. We may not have the option of keep it open."
The main problem: Revenue from property taxes will be down because Clearwater's property values will likely drop by 10 to 15 percent this year, said budget director Tina Wilson. Sales taxes and other revenue are dropping, too.
Most of the city's spending goes to pay its nearly 1,200 employees — down from 1,300 employees a couple of years ago. And city leaders don't want to lay off police officers and firefighters.
That leaves "quality of life" spending like libraries, parks and rec centers.
Council members spent three hours Thursday discussing various programs and city jobs that they could trim. But after two hours, they hadn't agreed on many cuts. About the only one they agreed on was closing the Harborview Center, which the city subsidizes to the tune of roughly $350,000 a year.
"We haven't cut anything, hardly," Hibbard said.
That's when the libraries came up. During the discussion, council member John Doran combed through the city's budget figures and calculated that closing the Beach, Countryside, East, and North Greenwood libraries would save roughly $1.25 million a year — not that he was suggesting that. Library director Barbara Pickell said that, if the libraries are facing major cuts, she'd rather have fewer locations that are open more hours, instead of more locations that are open fewer hours.
But she noted that the Beach, Countryside and East Branch libraries get about the same amount of use. "It would be difficult to deal with the loss of the East Branch facility," she said. "It would have a tremendous effect."
The council will make the decision later this year.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.