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Residents at beach may lose library

Efforts to hold the line on taxes have led City Manager Bill Horne to propose closing the 41-year-old Clearwater Beach Branch Library.

With a tight budget year on the horizon and a new main library going up a few miles away, Horne said it's "fiscally responsible" to close the beach branch on Mandalay Avenue.

Closing the branch would save the city about $203,000, which could be applied to the additional $467,000 officials say they need to operate the new library, slated to open in the spring of 2004.

"The closure of the beach library will assist in offsetting . . . the operation of the new main library," said John Szabo, the city's library director. "Closing the beach will help us."

Szabo said the library's 40,000-square-foot jump in space requires the new library to hire 10 additional full-time staffers, plus money for utilities, maintenance costs and custodial supplies is needed. The new 90,000-square-foot library has two additional floors and three additional service desks. Szabo said the city was prudent when planning for operating costs for the building.

"We tried to design the building the most efficient way we could in terms of staff requirements," he said. "We did not want to make the mistake of putting a huge number of service desks that would require staff."

The proposal to close the beach library, which turns 42 this month, is already the buzz around the branch. Library volunteers and users oppose it, but most said they understand the city's proposal.

Walking with romance and mystery novels in hand, Rupert and Irene Smith said they usually walk to the library in the pink, two-story Pelican Walk building at 483 Mandalay Ave. They appreciate the library's location.

"We understand why it's being done, but we're sorry it is," said Rupert Smith, 78.

"It's the only one we use because we live on Poinsettia," the street near the branch, said Irene Smith, 79.

Inside the library branch on Monday, a young woman in a orange bikini top works one of the two Internet access computers as a library volunteer shelves books in the 20,000-item collection.

Recently released DVDs, videos for rental and a collection of books for sale are near the front wall, which is mostly glass. A Wickman collection of Books of the Sea is in the back and there's a small children's corner with a small children's table. Closure would mean the items would be moved to the inland main library.

"It's terrible," said library volunteer Chris Kiser about the possible closure. "I understand the reasoning behind it, but this library gets used so much."

Brian Dinger, a Clearwater Beach resident, said he frequents the branch so much, they just keep his card at the front desk. He said it would be a "hassle" to drive to the new branch.

"People that live here don't want to leave," said Dinger, 26. "Sometimes it's better not to leave the beach."

Szabo said the drive from the Clearwater Beach branch to the main library's location downtown is just a few miles. It can take five or six minutes on a good day.

But tourist season or holidays are a different story, Dinger said.

"Traffic's terrible; it takes 45 minutes to get off the beach."

Szabo said he understands beach patrons' concerns, but the city just doesn't have the money. Closing the branch is "simply a way of providing the most efficient services possible within limited means," he said.

"(If I) could double the budget, all sorts of wonderful things could be done, but that's not practical," Szabo said. "You have a certain amount of money, so you try to spend it the best way as possible and try to provide the best service."

As for the new library, which will include art gallery space, a local history center and a collection of 250,000 items, Szabo said he hopes Clearwater Beach residents would see the main library as their own.

"It's a library that serves all of Clearwater, not only downtown or the neighborhoods that surround downtown," Szabo said. "It's their library and in very close proximity to them."

_ Angie Green can be reached at 445-4224 or agreensptimes.com.

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