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Library, recreation stir debate

On the ballot, it looks like a simple yes or no question: Should East Lake residents tax themselves to set up their own library? It's followed by a similar question: Should they do the same to set up a recreation program?

But East Lake residents have learned there is a lot more involved than a simple yes or no. When Nov. 6 rolls around, East Lake's 7,873 registered voters will help determine the future of North Pinellas.

"This community will be what the people here make of it from now on," tax supporter Judy Nobles said in August. "If they want to do nothing, that's what's going to happen out here: nothing."

Twenty years ago there was no East Lake, just pastures and swamp. But developers have transformed Pinellas' last frontier into a sprawling collection of subdivisions with a population of more than 16,000.

Yet the 33-square-mile sprawl has no center. East Lake is an affluent, rapidly growing community with no town square and few of the services municipal residents take for granted.

It does have a 26-acre recreation complex built by volunteers using donated money. But it does not have a public library. East Lake's residents must drive to Oldsmar, Palm Harbor or Tarpon Springs to check out a book.

Two years ago some East Lake residents proposed the community tax itself to raise the money to start a library closer to home and to give the recreation complex a more certain base of support.

But the voters said no. Some thought the tax supporters were a minority trying to force their will on everyone else. Some objected to calling their community "East Lake." Some didn't believe the area had a large enough tax base.

Now a similar proposal is up for another vote. State law says this is the last chance for tax supporters to push it through, but opponents question why it has come up again.

A blow to the system

The proposal is back because supporters _ among them people who voted "no" two years ago _ gathered more than 1,000 signatures on petitions calling for a referendum on setting up two new property taxes.

The basic unit of measurement for property taxes is the mill. One mill translates to $1 of tax for every $1,000 that the property is worth.

By law, the new library and recreation taxes could not exceed a quarter mill apiece. For the owner of a $100,000 house, who would probably get a $25,000 homestead exemption, that would equal $37.50 a year.

East Lake property owners already pay a library tax. It supports the countywide library cooperative, which ties 13 libraries throughout Pinellas into a countywide system with library cards that can be used throughout the system.

The current tax rate for the countywide cooperative is a little more than one-third of a mill. For the owner of a $100,000 house with the $25,000 homestead exemption, that equals $26.25.

County officials have said if East Lake's voters okay their own tax, they won't have to continue paying the tax for the library cooperative, but they still can belong to the cooperative.

Library cooperative officials expect East Lake landowners to pay about $400,000 this year in taxes to support the countywide system, said Bernadette Storck, administrator of the cooperative.

That means if East Lake's voters approve their homegrown tax, the cooperative next year will lose about $400,000 of the $2.9-million it had counted on from the unincorporated areas of the county, Storck said.

Losing that much money at once would be a blow to the system, Storck said.

"No doubt about it," she said, "that would hurt."

Building a library

Of the money the cooperative system collects each year, the board will spend 8 percent on building new libraries. Some opponents of the East Lake tax have argued that money could go toward a library for East Lake.

"We would have first priority," tax opponent Agnes Tillerson contended at a public forum last week.

But supporters say the 8 percent is for building libraries, not for staffing them. And they contend East Lake has little chance of getting anything from the cooperative for some time, much less getting the entire 8 percent.

But Storck questions how East Lake's homegrown tax could pay for a new library.

Supporters figure the first year the new library tax would bring in about $198,000 for East Lake. By itself, that money "will not open a library," Storck said.

For one thing, a library must meet strict state standards governing the number of books and other features.

And the 11-member board that would administer the East Lake tax would have to turn all but about $15,000 of its budget over to the cooperative so that East Lake residents could continue using the county cooperative until East Lake has its own library.

But supporters contend that is not a problem. Resident Bill Nobles said the fledgling East Lake library board could pay the cooperative, then take out a short-term loan to build a library.

Once it is built, the board could pay off the short-term loan by floating a bond issue that would be paid off over a longer period with the tax proceeds, he said.

East Lake residents may not have to wait for a library to be built, either. Tax supporters have been negotiating with school officials to use East Lake High School's library as a community facility, at least temporarily.

Once East Lake has its own library, the board will become eligible to get money from the cooperative, the state and federal agencies, supporters say.

Community control

The notion that East Lake tax money would be administered by a board appointed by the County Commission bothers some East Lake residents. They don't like handing their tax money to people they didn't elect.

"You lose total control," tax opponent Matthew Henry said in an interview earlier this month. "The voter has no say. Now that's wrong."

But supporters of the new taxes say the library cooperative tax also is in the hands of an unelected board.

Supporter Karen Koenig, in last week's public forum, said she would rather see her neighbors in East Lake spend her tax money than a group of people she didn't know.

The volunteer group that runs the recreation complex, the Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Association, has such confidence in the yet-to-be-named board that its directors voted to donate the complex to the board if the recreation referendum passes.

But tax opponents such as Henry say the recreation tax is just a plan to foist the partly completed recreation complex onto the taxpayers.

Some supporters of the two new taxes have tried to paint opponents as older people who have no children to benefit from either a community library or a tax-supported recreation center.

But last week's public forum showed a different split. On one side are people like Helen Harageones, who moved to East Lake to escape the clamor and high prices of city life and see the new taxes as a sign of the same thing.

"Why all these peole moved into an area and suddenly want to tax themselves is beyond me," she said.

On the other side are people like Bob Lynn, who called for East Lake residents to vote for the two taxes as a way to make the area more than a collection of subdivisions.

"We need those services in order for us to become a community," Lynn said. "We have very little to bring us together."