In a 2000 referendum, Clearwater voters gave the city government permission to build a library at 100 Osceola Ave. downtown. They did not vote for that structure to be a new city hall. Anyone on the current City Council inclined to argue that point may — and should — run into a buzz saw of disapproval from city residents.
At a work session Monday, council members discussed the idea of making the Main Library, opened in 2004, a city hall instead. They asked City Attorney Pam Akin whether the 2000 ballot language prevented the city from doing so. It was something she would need to research, she said, to find out whether the ballot question, which authorized the sale of bonds to finance construction of the $20 million building, stated it was for a library or just "public uses."
It shouldn't matter to city officials what the ballot language said. At the time, it was indisputable that the purpose of the referendum was to authorize construction of a library. The planning, the design, the public meetings, the voter education done by the city, the ground-breaking and the grand opening all focused on one thing: The city was investing in a new, signature library to replace the old, overcrowded one that stood on the same property.
The city hired one of the pre-eminent architects in the nation, Yale School of Architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern, to design a spectacular signature library overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Stern and his staff came to Clearwater to examine the property, talk to the library staff and library advocates, and determine what the city wanted in its new library.
Budget desperation is driving the current discussion on the City Council. The existing City Hall, one block south of the Main Library, is a dysfunctional and aging building that costs a lot to maintain, is sinking slowly on one end and is so small that most city departments are in other buildings. It needs to be replaced. However, the current economic and political environment doesn't support replacement.
Mayor Frank Hibbard said the council is left with two options: authorize more money to maintain the building or move city offices to the library.
City Hall needs about $500,000 worth of capital improvements. About $300,000 a year, plus ongoing maintenance costs, could be saved by moving city government into the library a block away, officials said. They theorized they could move just the departments located in City Hall into the library or even turn the whole building into the new City Hall.
Conversion of the library to a city hall would be inappropriate, given the voters' decision to fund a library there. However, the 2000 referendum did provide for using some of the building for "other municipal uses" in addition to library uses. However, the impact of putting some government offices there is not clear.
Library director Barbara Pickell said Monday, "There really isn't unused space in the library" but that functions could be moved around or changed to free up the second floor of the building for city government. The city would need about 30,000 square feet of the 90,000-square-foot library. But if all of it is in use now, what library functions would be sacrificed? How would parking be affected?
Furthermore, the City Council may have to close some of the city's library branches because of a budget shortfall. That would increase the number of people using the Main Library, potentially creating a space crisis.
Discussion is scheduled to continue at tonight's council meeting in City Hall. Converting the library into a city hall is an option that should be quickly discarded.