Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas commissioners show some support for granting East Lake library independence

EAST LAKE — After years of paying more in county library taxes than they get back, East Lake Community Library supporters are pushing hard for its independence. And the Pinellas County Commission is seriously considering it.

The East Lake library has always been an outlier. It was built with the help of a state grant and private donations, but from the moment the doors opened, residents, county officials, and other cities and towns have been fighting over who should pay for its employees and upkeep.

East Lake voters have twice shot down attempts to branch off and create a taxing district, which would give the library its own funding source.

Now the library's advisory board is back again, trying to persuade the County Commission to put the issue to referendum or create a taxing district without a public vote. If the group succeeds, libraries in other cities could see their budgets shrink.

"We've kind of been a cash cow up here," said Roger Johnson, a member of the library's advisory board who addressed the commission Tuesday. "We want to fund our own library and we want to manage our own library."

Currently, East Lake residents, like all residents of unincorporated Pinellas, pay a county tax that goes to the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative. Formed in 1989, the co-op provided a way to pay city libraries for providing services to unincorporated county residents.

But East Lake residents pay more than twice as much in property taxes for library services as they get back for their small library. And as in most communities that send off tax money only to see a portion of it returned, the resentment has built up.

At its Tuesday meeting, the commission did not agree on a solution for East Lake, but none of the six commissioners in attendance strongly objected to it breaking away. Some explicitly backed its independence.

"East Lake is an anomaly created by Jack Latvala," Commissioner Susan Latvala said, prompting laughter. Her former husband, a Florida state senator, was instrumental in securing a grant to build the library.

She said she supports East Lake's bid for independence.

Commissioner Karen Seel said she would give the matter to voters.

Both Johnson and Mary Brown, the executive director of the library co-op, said that if a referendum was held, East Lake residents likely would support creating their own taxing district.

With the co-op agreement expiring in September 2013, the commission also is debating whether to overhaul the funding formula for all libraries. For years, most of the funding for libraries has come from cities and towns, which tax their own residents and fund their libraries. A portion comes from the county's tax on unincorporated residents, a situation that has fed an ongoing power struggle between Pinellas County and its many municipalities.

One proposal is to levy a countywide library tax, creating one source of money for the entire system.

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