RIDGE MANOR WEST — Last July, a suspicious fire broke out at the East Hernando Branch Library, causing smoke and water damage running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A few months later, county officials said they hoped the library would be back up and running early in 2014, but that isn't going to happen.
After the fire, the county contracted with a company to clean every piece of furniture and every book made smoky or wet. But since then, there has been no significant activity.
The current estimate for reopening the library is August, and that's only if everything goes as scheduled over the next few months. Delays in completing the specifications to put the construction work out to bid are to blame, according to Russ Wetherington, assistant county administrator for general services.
The job was finally bid late last year, and those bids are slated to be opened today.
East Hernando residents have been asking questions about the lack of progress. Last month, Ridge Manor resident Mary E. Locke wrote to the county's library advisory committee.
"My concern is that our Ridge Manor library, after several months, is still closed. County commissioners have apparently had difficulties (and delays) in contracting the work that needs to be done, but it would seem they could speed up the process,'' Locke wrote.
"Patience is running thin and people in our area want some concrete answers as to when we will again have the use of our wonderful library.''
Lynn Gruber-White, president of the Ridge Manor Property Owners Association, has also been asking questions. She has requested that the county send someone to her association's monthly meeting next week to provide an update on the project. She is waiting to hear back.
"I'm a little confused on how it can take over a year to make this happen,'' Gruber-White said. "It's definitely on the residents' radar screen.''
She pointed out that some of the older residents in the area live their entire life east of Interstate 75. Driving all the way to Brooksville to use the library there would be a major issue. And without any public transportation from the Ridge Manor area, there are few other choices.
"So many people depend on the library over here,'' Locke wrote in her letter. "For many of our retired folks who regularly visit the library it is one of the ways they stay connected to their community. People with no home computer use the lab for a variety of reasons, many to job search.
"The numerous educational programs have been sorely missed.''
Wetherington said the County Commission likely will be asked to approve the contractor on Jan. 28. Work will include painting, installing the suspended ceiling, installing light fixtures, insulation, window blinds, ceiling fans and other interior and exterior work.
The job is projected to take 60 days, but Wetherington said it might be longer. Once it is done, the county will need to return all of the furnishings and books, which have been kept in storage.
A reopening celebration is planned when the work is complete.
Joseph M. Brannen was charged with setting the fire. Arrested days afterward, he told investigators how he got into the screened reading room at the back of the library and set the blaze.
Wearing firefighting bunker gear he said he purchased on eBay, Brannen was seen in the area when firefighters came to extinguish the fire. He later said that he had set it so he could help Hernando firefighters put it out.
Brannen, 18, is charged with second-degree arson, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. His next status hearing is set for Feb. 5 in Hernando County Circuit Court.
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.