Clearwater officials may help close a projected multimillion dollar budget gap this year by closing some libraries. They turn so readily to that option at budget-cutting time, yet more people are using the city libraries and thereby demonstrating libraries' importance to the community.
Over the past two years, the city has cut the library staff by 15 percent and library hours by 30 percent. Even so, library usage by the public grew 4 percent. Step into the city's two largest branch libraries, East and Countryside, and you will often find them packed and people waiting in line for service.
Yet at a budget forecasting meeting last week, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard advocated closing the East Library on Drew Street and the small North Greenwood branch library.
He said people who now use the East branch could drive several miles north to the Countryside branch or use the nearby St. Petersburg College campus library. He suggested moving a few of the North Greenwood library computers to the city aquatic center across the street from the library, and then shuttering that relatively new facility. People who normally used the North Greenwood branch could use the relocated computers or travel about a mile to the Main Library on the downtown waterfront, he said.
Officials estimated that closing the East Library would save about $500,000 and closing North Greenwood would save just under $200,000.
Hibbard has long advocated closing some of Clearwater's five libraries. He has said he would rather have fewer facilities that have more robust services.
City library director Barbara Pickell said that if the library budget must be cut, she, too, would rather have fewer facilities with more hours and services. But she has consistently advocated closing the North Greenwood and Clearwater Beach branches, not the East library. That was her recommendation last spring, when the city cut the library budget, but the council instead decided to keep the beach branch by creating a new space for it in the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center.
Last week, Pickell saw problems ahead if the East branch closes.
"Countryside (branch) could not survive if we closed East," she told council members Thursday. "They can barely deal with the crush of activity they have out there now."
Hibbard's reason for targeting the East branch is not entirely clear. It is not underutilized. The East, Countryside and Main libraries all get about the same amount of usage, Pickell said. Last month, usage at the East branch was higher than at Countryside. The St. Petersburg College library is near the East branch, but the mission of that library is to serve college students and their academic needs — a far different mission from a city library.
No final decision was made by council members Thursday, though most seemed to favor closing the consistently underutilized North Greenwood branch.
Thursday's budget session was, for the most part, an exercise in futility. Council members talked about whether to make cuts to a wide variety of programs and facilities, among them the Harborview Center, Jolley Trolley, Sailing Center, neighborhood recreation centers, the city's Neighborhood Services department, beach lifeguards and C-View TV.
While there seemed to be consensus to close the Harborview Center in January 2010, reduce staffing in Neighborhood Services, and possibly cut hours at city recreation centers, council members clearly lacked a hearty appetite for making the drastic cuts needed to close a looming general fund budget deficit of $7 million to $13 million.
Not on the agenda was discussion of whether to consider cutting budgets for the police or fire departments, even though those two departments employ a significant percentage of the city's personnel.
Also absent from the conversation Thursday was cutting departments that presumably have less work to do because of the economic downturn. With little construction going on, it is logical to consider reductions in departments such as planning and zoning, permitting and building inspections. With the city cutting its own spending on projects, can departments such as engineering and public works get by with less staff and equipment? If the city is reluctant to put people out of work, can some of those employees be retrained to work in areas where there is considerable public demand for services right now — such as libraries?
Agonizing decisions await not just Clearwater council members, but all local government officials this budget season as tax collections and other government revenues plummet. No government service or program should be exempt from review, but officials should take into account how many people utilize a service, at what cost per user, and whether specialized interests or skills are needed to partake of the service or program.
Libraries are used by all kinds of people, of all ages and backgrounds, and no special skills are required to utilize them. In Clearwater, their value to the public is clearly growing, not declining. In these hard times, libraries are resources and refuges, and closing them should not be an easy call.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is email@example.com.