Special districts kick off budget information presentations

Cheryl Morales, executive director of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, requested that County commissioners keep the millage rate the same as the current year during an April 22 budget information session.

LARGO — Five special districts made their fiscal year 2021-22 budget presentations to Pinellas County commissioners during an April 22 budget information session.

They included the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, East Lake Library Services District, Palm Harbor Community Services District, which includes library and recreation services, East Lake Recreation Services District and Feather Sound Community Services District.

Special districts are located in unincorporated areas of the county where residents have approved a separate millage rate to pay for special needs. All five requested that millage rates for fiscal year 2022 stay the same as the current year.

Cheryl Morales, executive director of the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, was up first. She talked about how local libraries had responded to the public’s needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Libraries were forced to close in mid-March and didn’t start to reopen until June with some waiting until October. Morales pointed out that libraries in Hillsborough County had not reopened until two weeks ago.

However, just because the doors were closed didn’t mean library services stopped. Morales said partnerships and creative thinking resulted in new services, such as curbside delivery, drive-thru areas and virtual classes and events. Some libraries even helped with meal distribution to students after schools closed. Safety measures were greatly enhanced, she said.

Staff continued to work on-site offering services to the blind through the Talking Book Library and operating the Deaf Literacy Center in Pinellas while assisting statewide.

Morales said the pandemic caused PPLC to “reimagine” library services in unique ways.

She said the state’s libraries were expecting to receive a cut in funding from the state for next year. She requested no change to the PPLC’s millage rate of 0.50 mills. The money is used to support administrative expenses for the cooperative and provides payments for the 14 member libraries.

Commissioner Dave Eggers asked about plans to stop charging fines for overdue library materials. Morales said that policy had been passed by the PPLC Board with agreement from most of the member libraries. The new policy is expected to begin Oct. 1.

She said studies showed doing away with the fines was actually a benefit because it took away the fear some people have making them more likely to return an overdue book. She said it also saved money since staff wasn’t needed for collections.

She said estimates showed that libraries would lose $1,000 to $2,000. She pointed out that the new policy would allow libraries to charge overdue fines if they so desired.

Lois Eannel, director of East Lake Library, disagreed about the potential loss in revenue. She said pre-pandemic, the library received about $12,000 a year from fines, dropping down to about $8,000 last year.

She said it would be difficult to continue charging the fines if other libraries did not. She said since it would no longer be part of an automated system, as it is now, it would be more time consuming and confusing to the public. She said the plan was to continue charging fines only for materials from the special collections. Palm Harbor plans to do the same.

Gene Coppola, director of the Palm Harbor Library, said fines were a main source of income for Palm Harbor Library, bringing in about $10,000 a year. He said the library would have to use fundraisers to replace the income in the future.

Plans are in the works for a 12-hour telethon in November to try to raise the $10,000. Coppola said the event still needs approval from the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency.

Eannel reviewed changes made to serve the public while library’s doors were closed. She said thanks to a new locker system, East Lake Library had been able to provide service 24/7. It also offered home delivery service to the homebound and to assisted living facilities.

While special events were canceled, staff found ways to offer them virtually. The library continued its work supporting the local food pantry. She said after the library reopened, it had helped with vaccine education and registration.

She too asked that the county keep the maximum millage rate of 0.25 mills unchanged for FY 2022.

Next year’s improvements include the addition of 20 new computers and an emphasis on improving outdoor spaces for patrons to use, including a tech deck.

Coppola also talked about the challenges from the pandemic and the work done to continue to provide service in different ways. The same as the others, Palm Harbor Library offered curbside pickup while the doors were closed and more was done virtually. Coppola said everything was more difficult due to the loss of volunteers.

But he is looking toward the future and in particular, the 10-year capital replacement program. He thanked the county for a new agreement that calls for it to pay for maintenance of assets that are necessary for the building, such as the air conditioning unit replaced last fall.

He said people were coming back and things were going well. The library is taking its time with offering more in-person programming, but hopes to be able to do more as soon as possible — maybe by fall, he said.

He joined the other presenters and asked that the millage rate stay the same. Residents in the unincorporated community pay 0.5 mills to a Community Services District. Palm Harbor Library and recreation facilities split the millage with each getting 0.25 mills.

Erica Lynford, director of the Community Services Agency, which provides recreational services for children and adults, echoed Coppola’s request to continue charging the maximum millage rate that residents had approved years ago.

Lynford said due to the pandemic recreational facilities were closed for two months. Still services continued, including summer camp. The community center served as a voting site and a ballot drop-off location. It was a vaccine site, providing nearly 20,000 shots in arms.

Plans for this year’s summer camps are on track and other services are about 50% back with arrangements being made to allow for social distancing. One example was Zoom bingo for seniors during summer camp for kids, she said.

The last presenter for north county districts was Mark Sanders, director of East Lake Recreation Services District. He too requested that the commission leave the maximum millage rate of 0.25 mills in place for another year.

He talked about the infrastructure work that had been done since voters approved the district in 2014. Sanders was hired as director in 2015. Still more work needs to be done, he said. And he has plans to offer more services for both youth and adults.

The final presenter was Kevin Chambers, treasurer of Feather Sound Community Service District. He asked the commission to continue the millage rate of 0.7 mills, which was increased from 0.5 mills in FY 2019.

The money collected from residents in the district is used to pay maintenance and administrative expenses as well as pay for community improvements. Examples of recent and ongoing work included a new main entrance sign with landscaping and an adjacent pond stabilization project.

Chambers said the district’s goals for FY 2020 included finishing the sign and pond project and then moving ahead with the design and installation of a long-awaited dog park.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County Editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.