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Keeping police force leaves Clearwater council with more tough budget choices

CLEARWATER — Police supporters are understandably pleased with the city's decision to keep its Police Department and not to switch to the lower-cost Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

But that same decision will likely mean the death knell for some popular libraries and recreation programs.

It may be unavoidable. The city faces a $7.6 million budget deficit due to plummeting property values. Last year when the deficit was $6 million, the city closed the Morningside Recreation Center and the Harborview Center.

This summer, some of the places and programs that barely escaped getting closed last year will end up right back on the chopping block.

"We're still looking at the same vulnerable areas — libraries and rec centers," City Manager Bill Horne said.

For starters, Clearwater probably can't afford five libraries anymore, so the East Branch and North Greenwood libraries are in danger. And the North Greenwood neighborhood might take another hit if the city discontinues funding for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

Here are some more details on each:

North Greenwood Library: The little library on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue has vocal defenders. With annual circulation figures of only 60,000, it sees about a sixth of the use of the city's other standalone libraries — Countryside, East and Main.

But plans to close it last year sparked an outcry, and its supporters are already making their voices heard this time. Four people spoke to the City Council on Thursday night on behalf of this library.

"The North Greenwood area is a lower-income area in our city," Eleanor Breland said. "If a library is needed anywhere, it's needed there."

East Branch Library: The library on Drew Street is a lot busier. With annual circulation of about 350,000, it is used nearly as much as the Countryside and Main libraries.

To ease the pain slightly, the city could increase the hours that the Countryside Library is open. But library director Barbara Pickell has told the council, "It would be difficult to deal with the loss of the East Branch facility."

MLK Center: This building on Douglas Avenue has been an anchor for the North Greenwood community for 20 years.

The city no longer runs it. The Juvenile Welfare Board oversees youth programs there. But Clearwater has been paying for maintenance on the building, which needs a new roof and air conditioning, Horne said.

Officials are thinking about moving its programs to the North Greenwood Recreation Center. Horne expects that idea to meet resistance.

Recreation centers: It's not apparent that any more Clearwater rec centers will close entirely. However, their hours may be cut, and the city may rely more on outside groups to run classes and activities rather than city staffers.

Horne said Clearwater's most secure recreation center is the Long Center. It is the least likely to face cuts because it's multifaceted, it's in a central location, and it brings in revenue.

There's a lot of public support for keeping the Clearwater Police Department. The idea of switching to the Sheriff's Office has not been popular, and that's one reason why the City Council decided against it Thursday night.

But Clearwater could have saved nearly $9 million a year by disbanding its police force and contracting with the Sheriff's Office, according to a city analysis. But it's worth noting that the city would have saved only $2.5 million in the first year of the deal because of the one-time costs of closing the Police Department.

Even as they voted to keep the police, Clearwater officials warned the public that there would be consequences for other city services.

"Others are going to come forward to tell us, 'Keep my library' or 'Keep my rec center,' " said City Council member George Cretekos. "I'm certain that this year the cuts are going to be evident, they're going to be felt and they're not going to be hidden. … It's not a pretty picture."

Horne will unveil a proposed budget to the City Council at the end of June. Council members will debate it for months before approving a final budget at hearings in August and September, before the beginning of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1.

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

Keeping police force leaves Clearwater council with more tough budget choices 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 1:01pm]
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