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Plan sacrifices books to save beach library

(ran Beach edition)

The city's move to keep the Beach Branch Library open has sapped the library system's budget for buying new books and other materials by nearly $100,000.

"Our patrons have noticed the difference," library director John Szabo said. "It simply means that we purchase less material."

The library system, which has about 520,000 items in five different libraries, is cutting back on purchases in all areas of its collections, he said, from children's books to online subscriptions.

In the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, the library will have $595,840 to spend on materials such as new books and CDs. In fiscal year 2001, the library materials budget was $695,010.

"The budget that we do have is a respectable budget. It is certainly not a tiny sum of money for a community of our size," Szabo said. "But I'm a librarian, and the more money I have to spend on materials for our collection, the better."

The library's budget crunch started in the summer of 2003, when City Manager Bill Horne recommended closing the Beach Branch Library. Clearwater Beach residents vocally protested the proposal, and the City Council voted to keep the library open.

Money for the unexpected change had to come from somewhere in the library's overall budget that year, Horne said Thursday.

"It's a matter of priorities. The priority, as it turned out, was to maintain the beach library," he said. "And I did not think it was appropriate to take money from another department to make room for a beach library."

Szabo said the $131,800 needed for the Beach Branch, in the Pelican Walk shopping center, came out of the materials budget for fiscal 2004. The branch's personnel, operating and internal services costs were factored into this year's budget. But Szabo said there are no plans to bring the materials budget back to its previous level.

In May, the city opened a new $20.2-million main library in downtown Clearwater that includes 90,000 square feet. It includes four floors and a rooftop terrace.

But improving facilities isn't enough, Vice Mayor Frank Hibbard said, if patrons can't find what they need on the library's shelves.

"It's great to come to incredible buildings, but what really matters is the material inside," he said. "I just don't want to see our collection deteriorate. I think our citizens are going to start seeing the difference."

Hibbard said he's planning to enlist the help of fellow City Council members and the city's staff to come up with a way for the library to get more funding.

"We've got to find other ways to come up with money for this shortfall," he said.

Szabo said he plans to go to the Clearwater Library Foundation and Friends of the Clearwater Library, two nonprofit organizations that raise money on the library system's behalf.

Nessie Anderson of Clearwater comes to the library twice a week with her husband. She hasn't had any trouble finding the books she needs, but she is still concerned.

"I think it's a shame," Anderson said. "If I had money, I'd give it to them."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at (727) 771-4303 or cshoichetsptimes.com.

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