PALM HARBOR — Residents who want to influence decisions about spending for the Palm Harbor Library and Recreation Department have their last chance tonight, when the Pinellas County Commission holds its final public hearing on the county budget.
In July, county commissioners rejected a request from Gene Coppola, director of the Palm Harbor Library, and recreation director Erica Lynford to raise the local property tax rate back to its original one-quarter mill for each of the two departments.
In 1985, residents of unincorporated Palm Harbor voted to tax themselves for library services and parks and recreation programs.
An appointed board of residents, called the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, was set up to govern the two departments.
At that time, voters agreed to a tax of one-quarter mill for library services and one-quarter mill for parks and recreation. One-quarter mill raises 25 cents in tax on every $1,000 of taxable property value. Under that rate, a resident with a home with a taxable value of $100,000 after all exemptions would pay $25 for library services and $25 for recreation services each year.
However, since 2007, the county has kept the total millage rate for Palm Harbor library and recreation services at .4437, just over .22 of a mill for each department.
"The commissioners told us that residents did not support a hike,'' said Coppola. "But I think so many residents don't really understand what it all means, and if they go to public meetings like this, they'll get more educated. Then, if they still don't want to raise the rate, I'll be okay with it.''
For the 2012 fiscal year, which begins next month, Coppola's operations budget stands at $1,175,400. This includes a $96,000 transfer from the library's capital fund, which had only $325,000 to pay for the next 10 years of capital items, Coppola said.
He said the transfer of capital funds is "a one-time-only thing."
"Come 2013, I won't have money to do that again, so it could result in more layoffs or staff reductions at that time,'' said Coppola, who has already seen his staff shrink from 27 in 2009 to 18 in 2011.
"It's important for people to understand if the millage rate went back up to what the voters approved years ago, then taking out $96,000 would not have been necessary,'' he said. "It would have been a wash.''
Lynford, the director of parks and recreation, also has less money to work with in the coming year. This year, her department's operational budget totaled $766,480. For 2012, it is proposed at $703,000 — about $63,000 less, said Lynford, who was named director in May.
Although Lynford does not anticipate decreasing the size of her staff, the workers will not get a raise — for the fourth year in a row.
"As you know, these are tough times, and desperate times, desperate measures,'' Lynford said. "Quite honestly, the small staff that we do have here in programming and in maintenance have been committed to the job while seeing around them rising prices. They have all learned here how to think out of the box and do more with less for the taxpayers.''
When it comes to the East Lake Community Library, which is also under the umbrella of the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, director Patricia Perez has requested an additional $42,000 from Pinellas County's general fund for her operational budget, which is set at about $498,000.
The request for more money from the general fund came about because of a continued decline in financial support, Perez said.
The bulk of the East Lake library's funding comes from the county general fund and from the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, which collects tax dollars from unincorporated areas of the county and distributes the money to existing libraries.
Since 2007, the funding from the county's general fund to the East Lake library has decreased — from $316,000 in 2007 to 2012's projected figure of about $200,000.
Meanwhile, funding from the library co-op is expected to take a dive because of continued declines in property values. For the 2012 fiscal budget, the East Lake library expects to collect $164,000 from the co-op — down from the $170,000 this year.
Although she acknowledges the current economic conditions are presenting particular challenges, Perez hopes that in the years ahead, "a different way to generate funds for the East Lake Community Library will be created."
"It needs to change because (East Lake) used to be tiny, made up of dirt roads, and now we have our own population of 33,000,'' she said.
Perez said she'd like to see the East Lake library funded through a special taxing district for that area, but she doesn't want the library co-op's services harmed.
And just like Coppola, Perez believes the community needs to get better educated about how the local services they enjoy are funded.
"It's a complicated system, and I would love the public to understand the funding structure,'' she said.
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.