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Clearwater rethinks controversial library merger

Clearwater’s East Library was packed this day in April. The East branch, with a circulation of 321,196, may be merged with the Countryside branch, which has a circulation of 348,713.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Clearwater’s East Library was packed this day in April. The East branch, with a circulation of 321,196, may be merged with the Countryside branch, which has a circulation of 348,713.

CLEARWATER — City officials are having second thoughts about a controversial proposal to merge the Countryside and East branch libraries into a newer, bigger library between the two.

There are a couple of reasons they're reconsidering.

For one, it turns out the city probably wouldn't save as much money with a consolidated library as it had hoped. For another, the large numbers of east Clearwater residents who frequent these two libraries hate the idea of closing them.

"The people who actually use the libraries don't seem to be on this bandwagon very much," said Councilman John Doran. "The consumers haven't been convinced that this is a good idea."

"The patrons are not screaming for change," added Councilwoman Carlen Petersen.

But that doesn't mean the idea is dead. A couple of City Council members are still leaning toward doing it.

One argument in favor: The city nearly closed the East branch anyway due to budget cuts this year, and that was without having a bigger east-side library ready to help replace it. The East and Countryside libraries are surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and together account for nearly 60 percent of Clearwater's library usage.

"I don't know how we could survive by moving that much usage from either of those locations into the other," said Clearwater library director Barbara Pickell. "If Countryside is already overwhelmed with people — and it is — moving half of the people who use East into that would be truly traumatic. We just won't have room to put them."

Council members have been discussing the library issue recently but haven't reached an agreement. They'll likely make a decision before the end of the year, though.

They're trying to gauge the feasibility of an alternate plan that calls for renovating and expanding these two 15,000-square-foot libraries instead of building a new 45,000-square-foot one. They've asked city staffers to compile more specific information about how those renovations would work.

Why merge?

If Clearwater built a consolidated east-side library, it would be at Woodgate Park, a swath of city-owned land near the southwest corner of Countryside Boulevard and Enterprise Road. The city would close its two eastern library branches and move them into the new building.

Woodgate is 3 miles from the East Branch Library. It's only 1 mile from the Countryside Library, but is on the other side of U.S. 19 from Countryside.

So how could building a new library save Clearwater money?

The city's reasoning involves the quirky nature of where its funding comes from, and limitations on how different kinds of tax money can be spent.

Clearwater would use $9 million in Penny for Pinellas sales taxes to build the library. And the city has plenty of Penny money coming in — about $118 million over the next decade.

But Penny money pays only to build public facilities, not operate them. At this point, Clearwater can barely afford to run all the places it has built with the Penny money. And it can barely afford to run all five of its libraries.

Pickell, the library director, says one large east-side library would need fewer employees than two small ones, so it could stay open longer and offer better children's programs.

Where's the savings?

However, officials recently calculated that a consolidated library would save only about $179,000 a year, compared with what Clearwater is currently spending on these two branches.

That has left three City Council members — Doran, Petersen and George Cretekos — underwhelmed.

Doran figured that if Clearwater spent $9 million on a new library and saved about $180,000 a year, it would be getting only a 2 percent rate of return on its investment.

"I'm not quite as excited now," Cretekos said.

However, Mayor Frank Hibbard and Vice Mayor Paul Gibson remain open to the idea.

Hibbard argues that Clearwater must cut library spending. "I don't know what libraries are going to look like 20 years from now as computers continue to permeate society," he said.

Gibson notes that the city could recoup about $1 million by selling the East branch building, on a prime spot on Drew Street.

And he believes that renovating the Countryside and East branch libraries isn't a good long-term solution.

"Both libraries are often over capacity, and they're really not expandable in their current footprints," he said. "We'd really have to live with this decision if we stick with renovating the two libraries. This is our chance to fix it."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

FAST FACTS

Circulation of Clearwater library materials

Fiscal year 2008-09

Beach: 25,269

Countryside: 348,713

East: 321,196

Main: 425,705

North Greenwood: 40,168

Clearwater rethinks controversial library merger 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 3:14pm]
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