Only one thing was perfectly clear Monday after the Clearwater City Council debated what to do about the city's overcrowded East and Countryside branch libraries: The council doesn't know what to do.
That indecision is one of the best reasons we can think of for the council just to let this issue ride for awhile. Making the wrong decision would be worse than making no decision — and a lot more expensive.
Clearwater's five libraries have been suffering cutbacks in hours and staff for several years, and the city projects another dip in revenues next year. Yet the Countryside and East library branches are aging and overcrowded.
During summer budget discussions, council members broached closing one or both branches or consolidating them in a new library that would be built in the city's Woodgate Park near the intersection of Belcher Road and Countryside Boulevard. Council members didn't make a decision then, but they told library Director Barbara Pickell they wanted more information and options.
On Monday, Pickell delivered five options:
1. Leave both branches as they are for now. Together they cost $1.3 million a year to operate. Each has 15,878 square feet of floor space. East, built in 1985, gets 175,000 visits annually. Countryside, built in 1988, gets 247,800 visits. The city has budgeted $10 million of Penny for Pinellas sales tax money to renovate/expand the two libraries.
2. Keep both libraries open, but make them more efficient by eliminating meeting rooms and doing minimal renovations at $1.5 million per library.
3. Close East and expand Countryside by adding 8,300 square feet and 26 parking spaces — still not enough, but there is no more land. Expand hours and staff to accommodate former East branch users. Cost: $5 million. Annual savings to the system: $230,000.
4. Close Countryside and East and build a new, modern 35,000-square-foot library in Woodgate Park. Cost: $8.5 million. Savings: $244,000, plus East branch property could be sold. Would operate at capacity from Day 1.
5. Close Countryside and East and build a new 45,000-square-foot library in Woodgate Park. Cost: $10 million. Annual savings: $179,000. This is Pickell's preferred option.
During Monday's work session discussion, each council member headed in a different direction. Council member John Doran noted that the Main library downtown is under-utilized and said the city probably should look at sites other than a city park for a new branch library.
Council member Carlen Petersen said she isn't sure east Clearwater residents want a new consolidated library if it is less convenient to their neighborhoods, and that it wouldn't make sense to build a new library so small it would soon be outgrown.
Mayor Frank Hibbard asked that the city reopen discussions with St. Petersburg College about combining its Clearwater campus library and the East public library — an idea explored previously and not pursued because the institutions have different goals, but Pickell said she would try again.
Anyone who visits the Countryside and East branches can see their shortcomings: too small, insufficient parking, inability to expand, poor floor plan for heavy public computer use. A new library for the east side of Clearwater with a more energy-efficient design, better use of space, provisions for new technology, ample parking and the ability to expand might be the best alternative, but it must be in the right place. Woodgate Park may be too far north. And does the city really want to use precious parkland for a building and parking lot?
With the economy still struggling and a city election looming, the City Council should wait to make this decision until it has a solution it can enthusiastically endorse.