It took technology to fully realize the potential of linking 14 separate library systems together in Pinellas County. The 2008 rollout of the unified, online card catalog by the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative has led to a nearly fourfold increase in items loaned across library systems. That has meant fewer books are sitting on shelves gathering dust and more taxpayers are receiving the services they want — even in a time of dwindling support from property taxes and the state. This is what smart coordination of government services looks like, and it's something the Pinellas County Commission and the co-op's membership should commit to maintain even in the face of changing fiscal dynamics.
It's easy to bog down in the details of the county's 20-year-old library cooperative, the agreement that expires in 2013 if not renewed. A system initiated for one purpose — to give residents in unincorporated Pinellas County access to libraries by paying a special property tax — has grown into much more, including the shared card catalog system that also greatly benefits library users in member cities. But the recession's impact on property tax revenues and state library grants — at the same time library visits are up — has put financial stress both on individual members and the cooperative. A push by one unique library in unincorporated Pinellas, East Lake, to win a bigger share of the cooperative's share of property taxes has deepened fault lines over the future.
No one anticipated the East Lake library when the cooperative was first created. But now the affluent but unincorporated North Pinellas community has 20,000 residents who pay more than twice as much in property taxes for library services than is returned by the county and cooperative to actually run the East Lake location. That should be adjusted, but that will mean less cooperative money could flow to the other library systems that are also struggling under their own municipalities' budget cuts.
Some member libraries suggest the County Commission should raise the cooperative's property tax rate to collect more money — a politically unlikely scenario that would also further the tax burden on East Lake residents. Others wonder if there might be more consolidation of services among libraries to free up more money for East Lake without undermining what other member libraries receive. So far, however, that's more speculation than a plan. In the county courthouse, the entire mess has been labeled the "mini-EMS," a reference to the even more complex debate over how to divide money under the county's coordinated Emergency Management Services.
This shouldn't be as hard as the EMS debate, since as recently as 2010 there was broad agreement among the county's libraries that the cooperative had served them well and they welcomed more chances to find efficiency through expanding the agreement. Even more significant, taxpayers across the county have also benefitted by having better access to other libraries' collections. That's smarter government. Now Pinellas County commissioners and the member libraries should find a way to keep that going.