Just four years ago, Clearwater demonstrated one more time its long-standing devotion to libraries by opening a new $20.2-million Main Library overlooking Clearwater Harbor. It offers everything a library user could want, and in a beautiful setting.
But if a proposed deep cut to the library system's budget is approved, no one will be able to enter that great building on weekends. It will be closed. And it will be open only one evening a week, and then only until 8 p.m.
If you are a working stiff, good luck finding a time when you can use the Main Library your tax dollars built.
In fact, most of Clearwater's libraries — there are four branches in addition to the Main Library — face cuts unless some unexpected windfall materializes. The city's $6.4-million library budget has to be cut by $882,000, on top of reductions that were made last summer.
Clearwater isn't the only North Pinellas city pondering cutbacks in library hours or services. Last year the Florida Legislature imposed spending caps on local governments. Then in late January, Florida voters approved Amendment 1 to the state Constitution, decreasing property taxes for some residents. In addition, the economy took a nosedive and property values fell, meaning governments would collect less in property taxes. Cities and counties all over Florida are cutting their budgets, and in order to preserve what they consider essential services such as police and fire, many are slashing funding for recreation, parks and libraries.
Faced with such an unexpectedly large cut, Clearwater library director Barbara Pickell didn't have many options. She proposed reducing operating hours throughout the system to save on staff and utilities.
Under the proposal, none of the libraries would be open more than 40 hours a week (Main, the East branch and the Countryside branch are now open about 61 hours a week). No library would be open Sundays, and only one library in the city would be open each weeknight.
The Main Library likely would be open from noon to 8 p.m. Mondays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The East, Countryside and North Greenwood branches would be open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 6, but each would be open noon to 8 p.m. one weekday. The Clearwater Beach branch probably would be open from 10 to 6 Monday through Friday.
The proposal was not Pickell's preferred option. She believed the city could better use its resources by shutting down the North Greenwood and Clearwater Beach branches, which together contribute only 8 percent of city library use. However, other city officials thought her idea wouldn't fly, considering Clearwater's dedication to an expansive, neighborhood-based library system.
So the reduction in hours is the apparent choice, though the City Council will weigh in before there is a final decision. Hours aren't all that would be cut under Pickell's plan. She would also eliminate the adult programming specialist on the staff and the library Web master, who also teaches Internet classes for the public; outsource a technical services position; and reduce the book budget by $30,000.
Cutting back evening and weekend hours at all city libraries is bound to negatively impact school students and adults who work during the day. It has long galled me that so many businesses, schools and governments fail to consider the needs of people who don't even get home from work until 6 p.m. or later.
Largo library director Casey McPhee, who also is cutting her budget, chose an approach that seems sensitive to the needs of students and working people.
Faced with the possibility of having to cut hours of operation at the city's only library, she had her staff survey users to find out what hours they preferred.
Almost 700 people responded. Asked whether they would prefer visiting the library in the mornings or the evenings, more than 57 percent said the evening. When asked which day of the week they preferred, the top choices were Saturday with 22.5 percent and Sunday with 17.8 percent.
So as McPhee sets out to find $150,000 in cuts this budget season, on top of the $275,000 she had to cut last year, she will work hard to protect night and weekend hours.
"The best thing a library can be is open," she said.
It's an approach other cities should consider. If they must cut back, at least they should find out when people want the service and offer it then.
When McPhee attends meetings with other Pinellas library directors, there is much discussion about the budget cuts most are facing, she said. They try to think of creative money-saving ideas, such as cross-training so employees can fill multiple jobs. But library directors are worried about what next year and the year after that may bring and how much of library core services will survive. They also are mulling potential new revenue sources, such as charging fees for computer use or asking library friends groups to cover some staff costs.
At budget time it is difficult, both McPhee and Pickell acknowledged, to be considered a dispensable service when libraries seem as popular as ever with residents.
"We in the library field do what we do because we love to help people," Pickell said. "Sometimes it's hard to remember that we are valued."
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.