Library Talk in IRB Diverted, Coppen Urges a Referendum
by Leo Coughlin
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - A last-minute change in the agenda for last Thursday's budget discussion threw opponents of a planned expansion of the library off balance momentarily.
Taking the current small and modest library into the "big leagues," which is the goal of proponents, will burden Indian Rocks Beach taxpayers for years.
A discussion on the library's future was on the agenda for the July 26 meeting, but a change was listed unexpectedly last week and the budget session Thursday was taken up with administration aspects of the budget.
The future of the library is the hottest issue in this village of 5,000 people and the subject has overtaken the pie in the sky lavish expenditures that were put forth on a wish list some weeks ago.
That wish list appalled some on the city in light of these belt-tightening times.
While most elements of the budget will probably be handled routinely, the library question is important because opponents feel there is no such need and the expense will be exorbitant in the years to come. It has been dubbed a "white elephant."
Commissioner Jose Coppen has been the leading opponent on the City Commission of expanding the library because of the unnecessary burden it would create on taxpayers.
Because, Coppen says, he has heard from so many in the community on the controversial issue, he is a strong proponent of a referendum on the future of the library.
Coppen says, "Just when cities all over the state are scrambling to balance their budgets and in some cases reducing the hours of operation of their libraries we have people here who seem to be oblivious to the tax cuts demanded by our residents and want to proceed with plans to expand the library."
Of key importance is the fact that three major libraries are within less than eight miles driving distance from Indian Rocks Beach.
They are at Largo, Clearwater and Seminole. "What in the world we need with a library approaching major proportions is beyond me," Coppen said.
He also pointed out that the nature of libraries is that they grow - both in terms of materials that are stocked but also with personnel. Those who see the reality of it, envision ever increasing demands down the road, if the expansion ever becomes reality.
A report in 2005 from a library study group for the city saw significant expansion. Based on those findings, Coppen said, "The needs list will expand to include audiovisuals, computers, references, large print and so forth."
He also said, "The initial suggestion of a library 'expansion' can become a 6,000 square foot facility, the same way that a resolution to hire a part-time librarian morphed into a full-time library position."
That is the danger Coppen sees - a project that will grow and grow and heap obligation on IRB taxpayers.
At the July 26 budget meeting, a citizen, Victor Woods, warned the commissioners that the tax rate be the mandated 1.47 mills or lower. He said it was totally unacceptable to take $184,000 from reserve funds to balance the budget.
Steve Cottrell, the interim city manager, neatly sidestepped a maneuver by Mayor Bill Ockunzzi to perhaps dominate and direct some budget thinking.
Ockunzzi had sent Cottrell some questions regarding the budget and when he sought an answer from Cottrell, the interim manager said he preferred to discuss all budget matters in the presence of the full commission.
The commission meeting July 24 was routine with the commission setting a shade meeting August 7 with Andy Salzman, the city attorney, on the Whitehurst matter that has dragged on for months.
Another private meeting is scheduled in August with Tom Gonzalez, the lawyer handling the Grieshaber matter. Salzman cannot be involved representing the city because he is a possible witness in that case.
In a departure from normal procedure in attorney meetings, Ockunzzi insisted that the meeting on the Grieshaber case be public, but the commission wisely decided to make it private.
Some observers theorized that with a public meeting Ockunzzi, as presiding officer, could exercise greater control over what direction the meeting might take and what information might be divulged. He possibly plays a key role in the Grieshaber case.
Some residents are watching the case closely and are unalterably opposed to any settlement in which the "full story" does not come out.
Some discussion of the decision by Cottrell rejecting an opportunity to become the full-time city manager was pursued with Coppen asking Cottrell why he felt it was difficult to fill the manager's job.
Cottrell said there was no stability in city hall since Tom Brobeil left several years ago (as has been reported in the Gazette).
Cottrell said that candidates for the job wanted stability. He said that information regarding his contract negotiations which was supposed to be confidential was passed on to the county's only daily newspaper "five minutes after I had submitted my ideas on what should be in the contract."
No names were mentioned but it is pretty clear in most observers' minds where the leak came from.
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