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Pendulum swings toward large library

The new city library may be 93,000 square feet after all.

Largo commissioners directed the city staff late Thursday to create more extensive plans for how a library of that size, costing $22-million, could be financed. A formal vote is expected at the April 2 regular meeting.

And if that is approved, city staffers said, a tax hike in three years is a sure thing.

The library's size and cost have sparked considerable debate. Some residents and commissioners say that what started out as a $17.5-million project has inflated into an overly ambitious undertaking for a city whose overall budget is $85-million.

The city plans to raise $1.5-million for the project from private donors. Another $3.5-million would come from state and federal grants. But the city will borrow the bulk of the money, some $14-million, and pay it back over six years, the same length of time the city expects to receive Penny for Pinellas funds.

The remaining $3-million is already available or has already been earmarked for parts of the project, such as the design phase, said assistant city manager Henry Schubert.

In a fervent, sometimes emotional and often to-the-point discussion, commissioners laid out their fears. Although they agreed to the $22-million figure, they made it clear they aren't willing to push the cost of the project any higher.

Questions on the library's size and cost were tossed like pingpong balls from one side of the table to the other for the better part of an hour. Commissioner Harriet Crozier wanted to go with the money already budgeted, or about $19.7-million. Mayor Bob Jackson said re-establishing priorities could be the answer. But Commissioner Jean Halvorsen pushed for some kind of decision, saying it wasn't fair to anyone to keep pushing the matter back and forth.

Then there were questions of constructing a smaller library with better quality versus building a larger library with less quality.

In the end, the consensus was to vote on a fully furnished, $22-million, 93,000-square-foot library with several departments, including those for teens, children and genealogy.

A sticking point, though, is an additional $700,000 a year the city will need to operate the library.

That's where the taxpayers come in.

In fiscal year 2005, there would be a proposed half a mill tax increase needed to offset the additional operating costs, Schubert said.

The average taxable value of a home in Largo is about $75,000 after subtracting a $25,000 homestead exemption. A mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of assessed taxable property value. A half-mill tax increase would result in an annual increase of $37.50 for the average city homeowner.

So some commissioners expect there will be even more discussion on the issue in the coming weeks.

"The people who have a passion for this need to understand that I personally feel they have plenty of money to buy the quality of the library they want," said commissioner Harriet Crozier in an interview Friday afternoon. "I will see that they get those monies, but nothing more."

Commissioner Marty Shelby said he was "extremely uncomfortable" with committing the tax payers to a property tax increase without knowing whether there is sufficient support for a project of this scope.

"It's not where I am," he said. "It's where the community is. Who will be left to pay the bill? I'm concerned that the support for a project of this scope in our community is neither broad nor deep."

Largo's proposed library

Size: 93,000 square feet.

Cost: $22-million.

Annual debt payments: $2.34-million, including interest.

Total debt: $14-million

Total annual interest: $1.65-million