It was billed as a forum on the upcoming referendum on a library and recreation tax for East Lake. But the crowd of about 40 people who showed up at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection on Wednesday night wound up wrestling with issues that philosophers have debated for centuries: What makes up a community? And what is more important, the community or the individual?
"This is the first place I've lived where the people weren't pulling together, didn't see themselves as a community," said Katharine Bursnall, a supporter of the tax. "I'm deeply concerned that people are not thinking about the big picture. It's all "me, me, me.'
On Nov. 6, East Lake's voters must decide whether to tax themselves to provide library and recreation services for their 33-square-mile segment of North Pinellas. East Lake has no public library for its more than 16,000 residents, and its only public recreation program is operated by volunteers and financed by donations.
Some people like it that way. "We moved out into the country to get away from all the taxation," Charles Dedman said.
"Why these people moved into an area and suddenly want to tax themselves is beyond me," agreed Helen Harageones, asking why tax proponents didn't settle in an area where such amenities were available. "We've lived all over the world, and this is why we settled here."
"A lot of us moved here thinking we were going to be part of a community," Bursnall said. She said she and others were surprised to learn they were living in a collection of subdivisions without a lot of the services that municipal residents take for granted.
"We need those services in order for us to become a community," Bob Lynn told the crowd. "We have very little to bring us together."
Lynn also contended that by voting for the tax and instituting the 11-member community services board that would administer the money, East Lake would gain more than a sense of community. It also would gain a cohesive voice in county politics.
"Somehow organizations of this type help us become politically potent," he said. "Right now, we have no clout."
"That's all very good, but are we going to pivot everything on library and recreation?" Dedman asked. "You can't base a community on library and recreation."
"You have to start somewhere," Carol Szeremeta said.
Dedman also questioned the idea of turning over control of the tax money to a board not elected by the voters, but appointed by the County Commission. "Right now I like the idea of having the leverage of the ballot box," he said, drawing applause from some in the crowd.
But supporters of the tax noted that the board of the countywide library cooperative, which would be in charge of providing East Lake's library service if the referendum fails, also is appointed by the commission, not elected.
Wednesday's forum was not sponsored by either supporters or opponents of the tax. It was the idea of longtime community activist Pat Imperato, who said he was neutral on the issue. No other forums have been scheduled before the vote.
A similar proposal failed two years ago.