CLEARWATER — Over nearly two decades, all of the spare change collected by the Penny for Pinellas sales tax has added up to billions.
In Clearwater, the Penny has built libraries, fire stations and rec centers. It helped build the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge and the Bayside Bridge, the BeachWalk promenade and Bright House Networks Field, among other things.
For the Penny's next decade, 2010-2020, Clearwater intends to use its share of the tax money on a lengthy wish list of multimillion-dollar projects. (See box on Page 4.)
But city leaders will soon have to knock about $20-million worth of stuff off the list. Because in this economy, a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax will be raking in less revenue than expected.
Judging from the talk at City Hall, some of the two dozen projects are already destined for the chopping block. For instance, do we really need a taxpayer-funded $3-million wireless network blanketing all of Clearwater? The consensus is, probably not.
The City Council recently started considering which projects to cut or scale back. Council members might also add new projects like the Royalty Theatre renovation and remove others to make room for the new additions. They'll discuss it further before holding a public hearing on the changes, likely in March.
The penny tax can be used only for capital improvements like roads, parks and public buildings. The county government and Pinellas' 24 cities split the proceeds from it.
Clearwater had expected to get $138-million over the next decade, so the city planned nearly $131-million in Penny projects, leaving itself some wiggle room to work with.
Now it expects to get maybe $118-million instead, so the City Council is being asked to whittle the list down to $110-million.
Here are some of the things they're considering trimming:
Countryside pool: There appears to be little demand for this. "No one in my area is asking us for a pool," said council member Carlen Petersen, who lives in Countryside.
Libraries: There's talk of merging the Countryside and East Branch libraries into one larger library between those locations.
"Should we have more libraries with fewer hours or fewer libraries with more hours?" said Mayor Frank Hibbard."
The city has earmarked $12.5-million from the penny tax to expand those two libraries. But it could be hard to expand the Countryside branch without significantly reducing its parking. Instead of making the libraries bigger, city library director Barbara Pickell thinks it would be cheaper to renovate them, improving efficiency with measures like a self-checkout system so the cash-strapped libraries can operate with fewer employees.
Another option, she said, would be consolidating the two 15,000-square-foot libraries into one 45,000-square-foot East Clearwater library.
Fire stations: The city has already used the penny tax to work on four of its eight fire stations. Next up is the downtown station, and the final three stations are to be renovated between 2010 and 2020.
Hibbard has asked the Fire Department to look into consolidating the downtown and Lakeview stations at a central location to save money. Fire Chief Jamie Geer said they're studying how that would affect response times.
New City Hall: This is the biggest, priciest thing on the list, and Clearwater officials are well aware that there likely will be some public resistance to it.
"We're not looking for a Taj Mahal," said City Manager Bill Horne. He said the city government will at some point need to replace its aging headquarters, which is costing more to maintain.
This might be more likely to happen toward the end of the next decade. One reason is that Clearwater and Pinellas County have discussed building a joint government center. A second reason is that City Hall is in a prime location overlooking Clearwater Harbor. There is still talk of selling the site once the market rebounds and using the proceeds to help build a new City Hall.
"I do not envision City Hall being where it is in 10 years," Hibbard said. "Either the existing City Hall is going to need some work, or we're going to have to move."
Streetscaping: The list includes $12.5-million for landscaping downtown streets. The next stage of the Cleveland Street makeover starts this fall between Myrtle and Missouri avenues.
Some of those millions are earmarked to eventually extend the Cleveland Street landscaping all the way east to Highland Avenue. But the current council has shown little enthusiasm for that idea. If it happens, they say, it'll be a much cheaper version of the work that has already been done on Cleveland between Myrtle and Osceola.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.