Tuesday, April 24, 2018
News Roundup

County may set up new library taxing unit in East Lake

EAST LAKE — The way Ron Schultz sees it, the value East Lake residents get from the tax they pay now for library services is like "… going to a Shell gas station, giving them $50 and getting $30 in gas back.''

Schultz is chairman of the advisory board for the East Lake Community Library. For years, the board has complained that East Lake taxpayers contribute a lot more in Pinellas library taxes than they get back in revenue for their local library. Last year, for instance, East Lake paid in roughly $986,000 and received only about $400,000 back.

But Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission will discuss an ordinance that would change the funding structure for the East Lake library. It would create a new municipal services taxing unit in East Lake, using the boundaries of the East Lake Tarpon Special Fire Control District, so a tax could be levied there just to support the East Lake library.

If the ordinance is approved, East Lake property owners would be required to pay a library tax of up to one-quarter mill, or 25 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value. The County Commission would decide how much of that available millage to levy.

At the same time, East Lake residents would stop paying the library tax levied on other residents of unincorporated Pinellas to reimburse existing libraries, most of them in cities, for serving county residents. That tax is currently .44 mill and is distributed through the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative.

If the ordinance is approved, East Lake would have a library funding mechanism similar to Palm Harbor, another unincorporated area in North Pinellas that set up a taxing district for library services in the 1980s.

Although the co-op will lose the tax dollars that had been paid by East Lake, the East Lake library will remain a participating member of the cooperative, said co-op director Mary Brown. The library will continue to share its resources and in return, it will receive some of the revenue generated by the unincorporated county library tax.

Mark Woodard, assistant county administrator, estimated the East Lake library would receive around $685,000 annually — $537,000 from the new tax and about $148,000 from the co-op.

If the new taxing unit is created, the County Commission will oversee the district. But it isn't clear who would oversee day-to-day administration of the library.

"Some of the governing structure still needs to be determined," Woodard said. "This will be with contemplation that the library advisory board and the Friends group will have a role in that.''

While the idea of a library tax for East Lake appears to have widespread support now, that was not always the case.

Residents voted against a library tax in referendums in 1988 and 1990. It was through a volunteer effort by the Friends of the East Lake Library that a small library was established in a local storefront in 1993.

The little library was established too late to qualify for funding from the Pinellas co-op, created only for libraries that existed in 1989.

But the Friends group solicited help from state Sen. Jack Latvala, who determined that an East Lake library could get the funding if it were a branch of the existing Palm Harbor Library. A new East Lake Community Library opened on East Lake Road in 1999.

Schultz said residents are more accepting now of a new library tax for two reasons: the economy and demographics.

In recent years, the number of families using the library "...has exploded," he said. "And when it comes to the value of a public library, the Great Recession was felt by everyone, even the wealthier residents of East Lake."

"Everyone here knows the value of a good library program,'' he said.

Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.

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