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Pasco commissioner’s call to close libraries rattles patrons

WESLEY CHAPEL — Loyal patrons of the New River Library were distraught by the news that County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader has suggested closing their branch, along with the Centennial Park branch in Holiday, to reduce the county’s $1.1 billion budget.

“I will cry if this place closes,” said Mary Lou Miller, who goes to New River every Friday to check out 14 books — seven for her and seven for her husband. “It would be such a shame. The personnel here are friendly and cooperative. You couldn’t ask for a better group of people.”

County Administrator Michele Baker has not recommended any cuts in library services in fiscal 2014. Schrader first raised the issue in a budget workshop last week and asked that it be placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting in Dade City.

New River Branch Manager Lisa Morgan said library patrons and employees were shocked that Schrader would consider closing the county’s fourth busiest library. “It just came out of left field,” she said.

Centennial Park has been on the chopping block twice before. The branch on Moog Road in Holiday was the first branch library built with bond issue money that voters approved in the mid-1980s.

The county’s Assistant Library Director Kevin Griffith said the branch is popular, but it lacks parking. “Also, the South Holiday branch is about two miles away,” he said.

The New River Library is the only branch that primarily serves Wesley Chapel. The branch on State Road 54 is more than 13 miles from the Hugh Embry Library in Dade City and nearly 16 miles from the Land O’ Lakes Library on Collier Parkway. Which means Zephyrhills’ library — just five miles away — could end up with the overflow from Wesley Chapel.

City Manager Jim Drumm said the potential closure of New River would have pros and cons for the city, which will start building a new library in October.

“Initially, it would be very busy. But in the long run, if it means more people are coming to downtown Zephyrhills to use our library, that’s not such a bad thing,” Drumm said.

The city’s new, $1.5 million library is slated to open in 2015. But the existing building lacks meeting space and WiFi, and it has only seven public computer terminals.

“They are a part of our library cooperative, but they won’t be able to provide relief at all because of the size and the capacity,” Griffith said.

In 2009, commissioners considered a proposal to rotate staff between the New River and Hugh Embry libraries. That strategy was seen as a way to keep each library open at least part-time, but commissioners felt the distance between them posed an obstacle for many of their patrons.

Griffith said he assumed Schrader picked Centennial and New River because of the 2009 proposal.

“In the past, when we had to consider closing libraries, we did a fairly rigorous analysis of all the branches, and those were the two we recommended,” he said.

But Schrader said he doesn’t remember the earlier proposal to merge New River with Hugh Embry.

“I knew Centennial had been recommended,” he said. “As for New River, the reason I recommended that one is so there would be one on the east side and one on the west side.”

Closing both libraries would shave $776,875 from the budget — if all of the positions were eliminated.

Assistant County Administrator Suzanne Salichs said she will present the board with three options: eliminate all the jobs; eliminate all but essential personnel; or close the libraries and reassign all of the staff to other branches.

“We didn’t consider reducing hours because the commissioners did not ask us to look at that as a possibility,” she said.

Schrader said he and other commissioners have been bombarded with phone calls and emails ever since they tentatively approved an 8-percent property tax hike for next year. “I’m getting it everywhere — don’t raise my taxes,” he said. “I had a man come up to me the other day and tell he me he ate spaghetti three nights in a row because that’s all he could afford. I have not heard any suggestions from the other commissioners. Commissioner (Henry) Wilson said he’s still looking to find efficiencies — well, he’s yet to find any.”

Schrader said he doubts he’ll get the votes to approve a budget with two fewer libraries. “I don’t expect to have support for it. I just want to have the discussion,” he said.

Charles Brantley, who utilizes the library twice a week, said the value of a library cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. It’s where his wife, Beverly goes to check her email and his daughter, Desiree, checks out her favorite book, “Fancy Nancy.”

“I would be willing to pay the taxes to keep the library,” he said.

Nancy Lay leads the monthly book club discussions at New River. She said the club can get up to 25 members during the winter, when snowbirds are in town. “This library is great for book club because it’s very friendly and wide open,” she said.

She said she’ll be at Tuesday’s meeting, along with other members of the book club, to speak on behalf of the library.

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