New River Branch Library stays open, but budget issues remain

Patrons of New River Branch Library can breathe a sigh of relief.

The Pasco County Commission voted unanimously last week to keep open both the Wesley Chapel library as well as the Centennial Park Branch Library in Holiday.

The decision came after library supporters reminded commissioners how important those libraries are in the communities where they operate.

One woman described the New River Branch as having the welcoming feel conveyed on the television sitcom “Cheers,” saying it’s a place “where everyone knows your name.”

She told commissioners that the library is a community gathering spot, serving everyone “from the tiniest child up through seniors.”

Diane Halterman, a former county library system branch manager from Zephyrhills, also weighed in on the topic.

“When I moved here in 1985, I was appalled that there were no public libraries on the east side of the county, except for the very, very tiny one in Zephyrhills,” she said. “And Dade City’s library was also very small. I saw the bond issue coming to the county and was thrilled to see libraries go up.”

Closing the New River branch would pose a hardship for many young families in Zephyrhills, who work in the service industry and can’t afford to have computers in their homes, Halterman said.

Gail Stout, chairwoman of the county’s library advisory board, told commissioners the per capita spending on libraries is $12.07 in Pasco County, compared to the state average of $25 per capita.

“You certainly are getting a huge bang for your buck in this portion of your budget,” Stout said.

Bob Robertson, also of Zephyrhills, joined with other speakers in describing New River as being a central part of the community’s fabric.

“The activities that go on there well exceed the books on the racks,” Robertson said. “I think it would be a very sad thing, if we were to close that library.”

Nancy Fredericks, administrator for Pasco County libraries, said closing the two libraries would cause more than 18 layoffs and yield about $776,875 in savings.

It quickly became clear that commissioners had no interest in closing the libraries. Even Schrader said he raised the issue because he wanted to be sure the county explored all of its options.

Commissioner Jack Mariano adamantly opposed any library closings.

“I just would love to see this conversation stop right now,” he said, urging commissioners to send a clear message that all county libraries will remain open.

“I think the libraries are very important for the county. Children have to take online courses. If they don’t have a computer at home, where are they going to go?” Mariano said.

Closing libraries would be a step in the wrong direction, he added.

“I just think we’re really hurting quality of life. There are better ways to go,” Mariano said.

Commissioners Pat Mulieri, Kathryn Starkey and Henry Wilson made it clear they were against the idea.

“We all have to decide what kind of community we want to live in,” Starkey said. “Having a quality place takes some investment. This is, to me, a real turning point in Pasco County.”

Despite that sentiment, Schrader countered that the commissioners are still going to need to find places to save money, or residents will get bigger tax bills in the mail later.

“In less than a month, on Sept. 10, we have the first public hearing,” he said. “Staff needs some direction from this board where you’re going to cut and where you’re going to raise taxes.”

Commissioners have been hearing plenty from people who don’t want a tax hike.

But Mulieri asked how well those louder voices are being represented.

“How many people did you hear from?” she said. “Twenty-five? Thirty? Fifty? There’s 478,000 people in Pasco County. Most people like the idea that we have a fee for services. But they also want their library.”

Starkey and Mariano noted that quality of life has an impact on the county’s economic prospects.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who don’t want any raise in the taxes. I’ve heard from a lot more that say they want a quality place to live,” Starkey said.

“We can’t attract businesses here, when they drive by shuttered parks, shuttered libraries, roads full of potholes, snipe signs and garbage everywhere because we aren’t taking care of our backyard,” she said.

 

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