For years, East Lake residents have complained that they pay more into the county's public library system than they get back. On Thursday, the County Commission edged closer to giving their library its independence.
By a 5-2 vote, the commissioners instructed county staff to draft an ordinance that would allow East Lake residents to fund their library directly, instead of paying into a countywide fund and getting a fraction of their money back.
Like other people in the county's unincorporated areas, people in East Lake pay a tax that goes to the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative. The co-op redistributes that money to cities' libraries, allowing unincorporated residents to use them. In the past, the co-op has returned to East Lake about $400,000 of the roughly $986,000 that its residents paid in taxes.
Under the proposed changes, the commission would create an East Lake taxing district, similar to the one in Palm Harbor. Residents would pay a quarter mill and all of that money would go to their library. Though they would no longer pay into the library co-op, they would remain part of the countywide system, and would receive money from the co-op. In total, the library would take in about $685,000 annually.
That's good news for East Lake boosters who say the library has long needed more money. It's also likely to please East Lake residents, who could end up with a lower tax rate.
For people living in the rest of unincorporated Pinellas, it could to translate into higher taxes.
To appease cities that rely on money from the co-op, the commission is considering raising the millage rate for library services from .4437 to .5. For someone who owns a home valued at $150,000 with a homestead exemption, it would mean paying $50 a year instead of $44.37.
East Lake, which is home to many expensive properties and wealthy residents, would not have to pay this higher tax.
Commissioner Karen Seel voted against the proposal, saying it would set a dangerous precedent.
If the commission allows East Lake to stop paying into the co-op, then there's nothing preventing other unincorporated communities from opting out, too, she said. Instead, she proposed that East Lake residents pay a quarter mill toward their library and a quarter mill into the co-op.
Commissioner Susan Latvala, who has long supported the library's independence, called this idea a "non-starter."
"East Lake has a library. They're willing to pay for it with a tax levy. But to charge them for the co-op as well, I just will not support it," she said. "It's not fair."