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Goal is to get Penny projects to blast off, not blow up

Published Sep. 13, 2005

The debate over Clearwater's Penny for Pinellas project list should be like a fireworks show at a gas plant. There are sure to be lots of little explosions, and there could be a big one.

A little explosion occurred this week when the Clearwater City Commission was told it would have to make a choice about a new $12-million library. Build the library soon on borrowed money, and the finance costs will reduce the library size and amenities. Or delay construction of the library until the tax dollars have been collected, and wait five to 10 years for a new library.

Neither of those choices was acceptable to library supporters and at least one commissioner. "It seems like we can never build something adequately," said Commissioner J.B. Johnson.

City Manager Mike Roberto moved quickly to put out that fire. While competition for Penny for Pinellas dollars limits what the city spends on a new library, Roberto said, "It will be an architecturally distinguished building and it will be sized properly."

How can that be?

In addition to the $12-million, the city will look for donations from library supporters and creative ways to share existing facilities, said Roberto, who was not ready to discuss that plan in detail.

While a new library is only one of the city's primary needs, it is one of the most important projects on the list. A library has a practical as well as a symbolic value in any community. It should fulfill the residents' varied needs for information; it should also be an expression of the city's identity.

Clearwater's main library should be more than a utilitarian space for books and computers. It should have style and substance, a place that when you drive by you say with pride, "That's my library."

So, until Clearwater residents see a city plan to adequately finance a new library, they would be wise to keep an eye on the process.

The library was a small explosion. So what would a big explosion be?

Let's say a majority of the commissioners decided not to build the Memorial Causeway Bridge after all. Boom! A political meltdown is possible.

Two commissioners, Johnson and Bob Clark, have said they might favor taking the bridge off the list and letting the state Department of Transportation build it sometime in the future. That would free up $20-million for other projects.

After the anguish the city went through over the bridge, stepping back from the decision to build would leave some of the project's most important details _ when, where and how to build the bridge _ in the hands of the DOT, an agency that rarely pleases local governments.

It is surprising that more firecrackers _ and maybe a bomb _ didn't go off during Tuesday's discussion of Penny for Pinellas projects. But it was just an information session. Decisions about the projects could be made in early June.

When city commissioners first compiled the list in 1996, before the successful vote to extend the one-cent local sales tax for 10 more years, it listed 46 projects that, presumably, could be completed for $101-million.

Then, they hired a new city manager, Roberto, who was expected to lead the city out of its doldrums. He responded with a popular redevelopment plan, "One City. One Future."

Penny for Pinellas had to be the major revenue source for the plan. That meant Roberto looked to set some new priorities, which led to his recommendation to spend more on some projects and drop others from the list.

This process has been the source of a lot of confusion and distrust. Did commissioners promise to do all 46 projects? Some commissioners say yes, some no.

It would have been a risky promise. How could anyone know in 1996 what a major construction project would cost in five or 10 years?

Is it appropriate to now change the priorities? Yes, if it is done right.

By "right" I mean:

Hold hearings at which residents can speak. This can be a source of support for a new direction.

Explain how important projects, such as flood prevention in east Clearwater, will be accomplished without Penny money. The city cannot ignore such serious problems.

Be flexible. Roberto expects a certain amount of give-and-take on his proposals. Instead of just criticizing what he or she doesn't like, everyone involved should be willing to offer an alternative.

Roberto has made his priorities clear. He chose five projects to build first, by borrowing the money. While that makes the projects more costly, it gets things going.

The five projects are: a new Memorial Causeway bridge, beach parking and road improvements, downtown bluff redevelopment, Gulf-to-Bay beautification and a new library.

I can't find fault with Roberto's priorities; although, I'm still waiting for details of his creative financing.

Now, the fun starts. Think of these projects as cherry bombs or Roman candles with their fuses about to be lit, and you get an idea of the debate ahead. There will be small explosions, but let's all work toward avoiding the big one.