CLEARWATER – It’s a complicated situation. Members of Pinellas County Library Cooperative are debating how to distribute money fairly from taxes paid by residents who live in unincorporated areas.
One of the loudest dissenters is the East Lake Library advisory board, who says East Lake residents pay more than their fair share and don’t get enough back. The current agreement that governs the cooperative and the funding formula expires in September 2013.
Mary Brown, executive director of the library cooperative, has been working with member libraries for several months trying to find common ground for a new agreement that could be better for residents of the north county community.
The library cooperative has a dual purpose. It allows residents of unincorporated Pinellas access to member libraries without having to purchase a library card. They pay for their library privileges through a special ad valorem tax assessment. The cooperative also allows residents of member municipalities to go to any member library and checkout books and materials using one library card.
“It’s a seamless process,” Brown said.
Municipalities share in the proceeds from the ad valorem property tax, paid only by unincorporated residents, according to requirements of an interlocal agreement with the county. The cooperative also receives and disburses money received from federal, state and other sources.
Other primary functions of the cooperative include a shared library automation system, shared materials delivery service and collective purchasing of resources and services.
Libraries must meet certain standards to be included in the cooperative, including the “core standards” defined by state, as well as Florida Library Standards for interconnectivity, lending services, services-resource sharing and interlibrary cooperation, and others specified in the interlocal agreement.
Money that comes into the cooperative from the county’s collection of ad valorem taxes for library services from residents in unincorporated areas is disbursed according to the interlocal agreement. Member libraries receive a base allocation between 4 and 16 percent, according to the amount of total support extended to the cooperative system.
The percentage of total support extended is determined by dividing the amount of money spent locally for library operations by the total local support by all members. Total support for libraries located in unincorporated areas, Palm Harbor and East Lake, is calculated according to the annual allocation received from the county.
Libraries also receive money according to their circulation pool – how much of their materials are circulated through the library cooperative system. The percentage of money they receive from the cooperative is calculated by taking non-resident circulation figures per library and dividing it by the total non-resident circulation for all members. Larger libraries, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, who typically serve more residents outside their municipalities, stand to receive the most money.
East Lake receives its share not as a standalone library but as a unit of the Palm Harbor Library. Currently, East Lake Library does not meeting eligibility requirements to join the cooperative as a standalone member.
Brown has been working on amending the interlocal agreement in such a way to allow East Lake to become a member by adding the ability for libraries with nonprofit status to gain membership. But, adding the nonprofit status won’t get East Lake past the need to meet core standards set forth by the state. Despite recent renovations and an expansion, the building is still too small and the library doesn’t have enough collections. Without more money, the library can’t be enlarged. There isn’t enough money coming in to pay for operations and maintenance as it exists today.
Brown said the Palm Harbor Library was “on the cusp” of having enough collections to meet the standards.
“But that’s a separate issue,” she said.
East Lake has been threatening to pull out of the cooperative for some time, which would greatly reduce the amount of money coming in. Some member libraries say they might consider leaving the cooperative if less money is available to pay them for providing services for residents outside their municipalities.
Brown admitted that some libraries provide more services to unincorporated residents than others. She said it would be great if an agreement could be reached to “break down the barriers to have a functioning countywide system.” It all boils down to membership requirements and fair allocation of the money.
East Lake wants to create a separate taxing district as Palm Harbor uses to pay for its library and recreational services.
Commissioner Susan Latvala said the interlocal agreement should make distribution of the county’s money fairer and not “just to give East Lake a piece of it.”
Brown agreed that it needed to be fair, but she also said it should not “be all about pay per use.”
“But how should we pay for it and should it be on the backs of unincorporated citizens … If we keep doing it this way East Lake will pull out and $1.1 million will be gone,” Latvala said.
Roger Johnson, a member of the East Lake Library advisory board, said East Lake residents pay too much in compared to what they get back. He said East Lake wants to become either a dependent or an independent taxing district.
“We just want to fund and manage our own library,” he said.
He said the library had needs, but no money to pay for them. He said creation of a dependent taxing district was easiest, it only requires four votes from the county commission. To create an independent district, would require approval from the state.
He said at the current rate of tax assessment, East Lake residents generate $1.1 million that goes into the library cooperative. He said with that amount of money, East Lake could pay for operations and maintenance and build up reserves.
“Then we can either fund East Lake baseball or lower the millage rate,” he said. “We don’t need $1 million every year.”
Commissioner Karen Seel said East Lake residents had twice voted down a referendum to create a taxing district.
“But this would just be swapping one tax for another,” Latvala said. “I think it would pass overwhelmingly.”
Commissioner Ken Welch said he would support a dependent or independent tax district, according to the wishes of residents. Latvala said she would not support an independent district due to the need to go to the state.
Commission Chair John Morroni advocated more discussion. The commission agreed to set up a meeting with municipal leaders to discuss the future of the cooperative.