For readers, using the county's library cooperative is a pleasurable experience — if a book isn't handy, no problem, the librarians will get it for you from another branch anywhere from Tarpon Springs to Gulfport. But troubles are looming behind the scenes over money as officials struggle with questions of increasing the library tax paid by residents in unincorporated Pinellas and how to distribute and use those funds.
Money has become an increasingly important issue in the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative over the past few years. As tax revenues have declined for both the county and the member cities, library budgets have undergone the same scrutiny as other services. The result: cutbacks in funds, personnel, hours and materials amid price increases and high demand for services.
Now those troubles are bubbling to the surface because the agreement that holds the system together is approaching its Sept. 30, 2013 expiration date. Negotiations to hammer out a new deal have been less than friendly at times.
"I think it's going to continue to be a rather — call it a dynamic — discussion," said Mary Brown, executive director of the cooperative. "It's going to be a balancing act. … I don't think either party is going to be totally satisfied at the end of the day."
The co-op was created in 1985 as a way to provide residents in unincorporated Pinellas free access to libraries because the county had none of its own. The co-op, as a nonprofit, was also eligible for funding that neither the cities nor the county qualified for.
The idea was that the county would impose a library tax on residents in unincorporated Pinellas and would then pass that money to cities that joined the system. The cities, in turn, would open their library doors to unincorporated residents at no charge.
Twelve city library systems are in the co-op: Clearwater, Dunedin, Gulf Beaches, Gulfport, Largo, Oldsmar, Pinellas Park, Safety Harbor, St. Pete Beach, St. Petersburg, Seminole and Tarpon Springs. Also in the system are Palm Harbor and East Lake.
The cities fund their libraries through taxes they impose on their own residents. Palm Harbor funds its library through a tax charged by an independent district formed to create the library and pay for recreational activities in that unincorporated area. East Lake, which operates as a unit of the Palm Harbor library, gets money from the municipal services taxing unit, which the county charges all unincorporated property owners to provide city-type services.
Each of those entities also receives money from the county library tax — which totals about $4.7 million this year, said Mark Woodard, assistant county administrator. The co-op takes 10 percent off the top for administrative fees and reserves, then parcels out the rest to each of the 14 co-op members. But they don't get an equal share.
The East Lake library, for example, argues that its residents pay a lot more in taxes than they get back. Some in that unincorporated area are also tired of operating as a unit of the Palm Harbor library.
"There is an issue with East Lake. They want their autonomy. They want their independence," Woodard said. As for the disparity in the amount of taxes paid versus the amount returned to the community, he said, "that's the way the system works."
Someone, he said, will always pay more than he gets back. If East Lake chose to form its own taxing district, residents would see a closer relationship between the amount of the tax and the benefits.
Some cities believe the formula should be changed to better reflect the use unincorporated residents make of the city library. That way, cities that have the most unincorporated patrons would get more money.
But they also argue that Pinellas should raise the library tax to its cap of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. It's currently at about 44 cents per $1,000. Upping the tax rate would bring in an estimated $600,000 more but that wouldn't be much once it was divided among all co-op members, Woodard said.
The tax was at the cap until the Legislature in 2006 required cities and counties to roll back tax rates. The County Commission believes that was a mandated directive to reduce the tax to that level, so that's where it will stay, Woodard said.
"On the heels of this mandated reduction, (and) each ensuing year since then, we've seen a further deterioration in housing (and) property values that's driven down the revenue," he said. "The (tax) rate, whatever it might be, has just generated less and less and less each year."
Cities, which are also facing hardships, want changes and they've formed a committee of city managers. But, while rumors are swirling that one or more cities might be prepared to bolt the system and form smaller co-ops, no one seems prepared to say if that's a real possibility.
Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson, who heads the city managers group, said only that they're meeting to work out an interlocal agreement that will be acceptable to all.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.