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Clearwater tries to cut $20 million in Penny for Pinellas projects

CLEARWATER — The City Council met Thursday to cut about $20 million worth of projects out of its Penny for Pinellas wish list, but that sparked a wide-ranging discussion of some significant changes the city might make in the future.

Among other things, Clearwater could someday move its headquarters out of its aging, slowly sinking City Hall and into part of the newer Main Library. And the city might merge the Countryside and East Branch libraries into one larger library between those two locations.

City leaders won't decide those questions anytime soon, but other matters will be decided sooner.

Notably, City Manager Bill Horne recommended against building a new Morningside Recreation Center, which the city had been planning to do with Penny for Pinellas sales tax money. He suggested demolishing the current rec center because it's aging and will become unsafe.

Vice Mayor George Cretekos said he was "extremely troubled" by that because Morningside had been promised a new center. But Horne said the city couldn't afford to staff it due to budget cuts.

"You cannot conceive of building a new recreation center and not having some additional (employees) to operate it," Horne said. "That's what led me to make this recommendation, as uncomfortable as it may be, but we've got to get down to the nitty-gritty next year. I think it's important for the community to understand how dire things are."

The council will hold off on making a formal decision until it meets with Morningside residents in April.

For two decades, Clearwater has used its share of the Penny for Pinellas to build fire stations, rec centers and other public facilities.

Because the sales tax will bring in less revenue during this economic downturn, the city must cut $20 million from its $131 million list of projects for the Penny's next decade, 2010-2020.

The council reshuffled the list Thursday:

Eliminated: Citywide wireless service, $3.1 million; Countryside water park, $2.5 million; Highland Avenue widening, $2.5 million.

Top priority: Renovating the Beach, Countryside and Lakeview fire stations, a total of $12.2 million. Bayshore Boulevard realignment, $2.5 million.

Significant cuts: The budget for additional downtown streetscaping was cut from $12.5 million to $8 million, and the project was given a low priority. "I'm glad this is a low priority, because that's exactly where I'd put it," said City Council member Paul Gibson.

The budget for building a new City Hall and parking garage was cut from $25 million to $7 million. City staffers will look into other options instead, such as renovating the current City Hall or moving into part of the 90,000-square-foot Main Library, which was built with extra room for future expansion.

Libraries: Horne and city library director Barbara Pickell suggested merging the Countryside and East Branch libraries.

The city has earmarked $10 million from the Penny to expand those two locations. But it could be difficult to expand the Countryside building, and the city will have a tough time keeping all its libraries open due to budget cuts.

On Thursday, Pickell talked of consolidating the two 15,000-square-foot libraries into one 45,000-square-foot East Clearwater library at the city-owned Woodgate Park at the corner of Countryside Boulevard and Enterprise Road.

She said that would improve efficiency, saving money over the long run. The city would sell the East Branch library on Drew Street.

No decision was made Thursday, but the City Council sounded receptive to the idea. Regarding the potential new library's location at Countryside and Enterprise, Mayor Frank Hibbard wanted to make sure the library's entrance and exit would be off Enterprise, and the surrounding neighborhood would be buffered from light and noise.

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

Clearwater tries to cut $20 million in Penny for Pinellas projects 03/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 8:27pm]
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