On Nov. 6 the residents of the booming East Lake Tarpon Fire Control District will have another opportunity to vote whether to tax themselves for library and recreation services. They defeated similar proposals two years ago in a referendum preceded by bitter division in the community. Some residents are irritated the issues have reappeared on the November ballot. They say nothing has changed. But much has changed.
Two years ago, there was no countywide cooperative library system. Today, because a majority of unincorporated Pinellas voters chose to tax themselves up to one-half a mill for library services, all county residents can use member libraries. A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed taxable value.
And two years ago, the privately owned Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Complex on Keystone Road was little more than open fields. Today it is a 26-acre complex with playing fields, a concession stand, bleachers, restrooms and scoreboards. The non-profit board that operates the complex has voted to donate it to the people of East Lake if the Nov. 6 referendum passes.
East Lake needs library and recreation facilities close at hand. It is no longer a few subdivisions scattered across pasture, but a growing and vital community that must begin to provide for its present and future needs. These two referendum questions offer a way for East Lake to have both at a reasonable cost and without substantial risk.
We have studied the issues and make our recommendations here. Remember to vote Nov. 6.
Library tax would mean
improved, closer service
The first ballot question asks whether the County Commission shall be authorized to levy a tax of up to one-quarter of a mill each year within the East Lake Community Services District to pay for a library and related land acquisition. The owner of a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay up to $12.50 a year.
This quarter-mill tax would be collected starting a year from now instead of the county cooperative library tax, which is about one-third of a mill this year but can go as high as one-half a mill. East Lake residents will not be double taxed if they approve this referendum.
If it passes, the County Commission will establish a non-profit corporation with an 11-member appointed board to decide how the district's tax revenue should be spent each year. This board would have some autonomy on many decisions about library service, but the County Commission would approve its budget.
How could the money be spent?
The board might choose to put the money into an account and begin saving to build a library for East Lake. Residents now must drive to Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar or Clearwater to visit a library.
The board might use the money to renovate, staff and supply the library at East Lake High School. The school has expressed interest in an exciting proposal to turn the school library into a shared school/public facility, similar to one operated in South Pinellas. The library would have to be renovated and improved substantially, and the Pinellas County School Board would have to approve the arrangement.
The board also could decide to use much of the money to pay East Lake's dues in the county library cooperative, so residents could use other libraries while their own was being built. Communities that don't have a library must pay a fee to the cooperative _ the cost was about $10.74 per capita this year _ if they want to use libraries in the cooperative. If a community has its own library, it doesn't pay anything to belong to the cooperative. Instead, the cooperative pays the community to offset the cost of county residents using its facility.
There have been questions about whether the East Lake tax district board could choose to be in or out of the county cooperative and whether it could use its money to pay cooperative fees. County Attorney Susan Churuti, who has been studying these issues for weeks, thinks the district would have a choice and could use its tax money for its own facility or to pay for access to cooperative libraries.
Some of the opponents of this ballot question have argued that East Lake residents don't need their own library now. They say East Lake should remain in the cooperative, and perhaps one day the cooperative will build a library for East Lake.
Perhaps. But we think East Lake will have a better shot at getting its own library if it establishes its own taxing district and keeps its tax money at home.
Only 8 percent of the county cooperative's budget is earmarked for capital improvements and program expansion. That is a small amount, and several member libraries already are vying for that money. It seems unlikely the cooperative will be able to build a new facility in East Lake anytime soon.
Instead, East Lake could begin working toward its own library. If it were able to develop a facility that meets Florida standards _ that won't be easy, but it is a goal within reach _ it could become a cooperative library and East Lake would receive money from the cooperative to help with operating costs.
This option has only one drawback: After East Lake residents stop paying the countywide library tax, they will not have easy access to cooperative libraries. They will have to pay a fee of $100 per household, or the East Lake taxing district will have to pay East Lake's portion to the cooperative until the community has its own library and can participate without charge.
But the time never has been better for East Lake to choose to step out and vote for library service. The existence of the county cooperative sweetens the possibilities. With dedication and hard work, East Lake can create for its present and future residents not only a facility that meets minimal needs, but also one that could qualify for state grants and become a partner in a network of good libraries.
We recommend a yes vote on the library services tax levy.
Community needs own
facilities for recreation
As East Lake grows, it is becoming younger than other areas of Pinellas. Many of the people moving into fine, new subdivisions in East Lake are families with young children. The community must put in place the services those families will want if it expects to continue to grow.
Pinellas County does not provide recreation services to residents of unincorporated areas. Those residents must go to the cities for recreation services or to communities that have formed their own taxing districts for recreation.
That is an unsatisfactory solution. Because of its geographical location and rapid growth, East Lake residents face long drives on congested roads to reach many facilities. Some of the facilities closer at hand already are overburdened serving their own residents.
East Lake needs its own recreation facilities, publicly financed and able to grow with the community. The Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Complex already is built and just needs stable financing to prosper. Other facilities also may be needed as time goes by. This small recreation tax, only one-quarter of a mill, will provide those needs.
We recommend a yes vote on the recreational facilities tax levy.
Diane SteinleEditor of editorials