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County presses for new library

Published Oct. 8, 2005

John Callahan III, the county's library director, hasn't campaigned this hard since he was 12, when his Uncle Samuel Pollard ran for mayor of Lowell, Mass.

At 47, Callahan has hit the stump again, pushing the construction of a $5.6-million library in Spring Hill. On Nov. 8, voters will answer a referendum question on whether the county should issue bonds to build Hernando's fifth and largest branch.

"I have been running a campaign," said Callahan, wearing a round green and white sticker that reads: "Open the Book on Your Future: Vote Yes for the New Library."

"I sometimes feel like I'm running for office, but I'm not. My job is to make sure Hernando County gets the best library service that we can afford."

Callahan says Hernando needs the 40,000-square-foot library. To prove that, he and the Hernando County Friends of the Library have waged a campaign to convince residents that a new library will improve their quality of life.

Residents and businesses contributed $4,000 to an advertising blitz, which includes radio spots, newspaper advertisements, fliers and 5,000 stickers.

The binding referendum would only cover construction costs, not the $850,000 a year to operate the proposed Harold G. Zopp Memorial Library on Spring Hill Drive, between Mariner Boulevard and Waterfall Drive.

Commissioners have flip-flopped on the library issue. First, they backed the library, spending $225,000 in design fees alone. Then, residents attended a July commission meeting and complained about the price tag, so commissioners decided on a referendum.

In another twist, commissioners are expected to pass a resolution Tuesday, asking residents to support the new library.

"The board has never been opposed to the library," said commission Chairwoman June Ester. "The litmus test we needed to take from the people is if they were in favor of it.

"We're absolutely 100 percent in favor of it."

From the cafeteria in the county government center to the commission chamber, where County Administrator Chuck Hetrick donned a sticker at a recent meeting, support for the new library is prevalent.

But opponents are out there, peddling their opinions. At a recent candidates forum at Timber Pines, the Good Government League distributed fliers.

"A yes vote for the proposed library is a vote for increased taxes, and it is recommended that you carefully read the wording of the referendum since it does not tell the whole story," Chairman Joe Fox wrote in the Oct. 19 flier.

The bottom line is when services increase, additional revenue is needed to pay for them. If the referendum passes, the county will have to come up with $400,000 to $500,000 each year for 30 years to pay off the $5.6-million loan, said Budget Director Robert Simpson.

Plus, money will be needed to pay the $850,000 annual expense to operate the library. Both the annual debt and the operating cost will have an impact on the county's overall budget, Simpson said.

"If the board doesn't find other revenue sources, you're going to have to increase property taxes," he said. That is, unless commissioners cut some services, which is possible.

Each year, service demands on Hernando increase, and more than likely, many departments will request more money for their budgets, not just the library system.

If the board does not find other sources of revenue, Simpson estimated that a homeowner with a $65,000 house and a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay an additional $16 each year to cover the bond issue and operating cost of the library.

In his flier, Fox criticized Callahan for not compromising on the library design to shave some money off the cost. Callahan says the library will provide people with state-of-the-art technology, such as computers.

"Should we now spend $6-million because this director and our commissioners put the cart before the horse and voted to go ahead with this project even though we had no funds for it?" asked Fox, who estimated that the property tax increase would be $40 for an average household.

Supporters of the new library say it's not a matter of increased taxes, but an issue of attracting families and industry to Hernando.

"Overall, long range, not having this library is going to hurt the county and cost the individual taxpayer more money," said Vince Vanni, director of community relations for HCA/Oak Hill Hospital.

"We've got to be known as an area that's high on culture if we're going to attract people and businesses that will offset the tax burden," said Vanni, who has arranged speaking engagements for Callahan on the library issue.

Of 67 Florida counties, Hernando's library system ranks in the bottom 10 in the number of books available for each resident and in library space. A basic library collection provides two books per resident, but the county is at 1.4 books per resident with rapidly shrinking space, Callahan said.

"In a few years we'll be basically full and we can't add to the collection," Callahan said.

Among other amenities, the new library would feature a meeting room complex with a small kitchen and personal computers with eventual access to online services such as bulletin boards and Internet.

The library would stock 80,000 books and 250 periodical subscriptions, which would be a larger selection than the county's other branches.

If the referendum passes, construction would start in February 1995 with the opening targeted for spring 1996. The county would not feel the budget impact from operating costs until 1996, Callahan said.

Fox says in his flier that the bond issue "is worded to mislead you."

"While pondering this matter, let's not merely consider our wants and desires but whether or not we can afford this facility at this time," Fox wrote.

And as with his uncle's mayoral victory, Callahan wants a victory for the library.

"We've got to fight for it if we want it," Callahan said. "That's what we're doing."