Reasons to Spare Beach Pool and Library
By Anne McKay Garris
He stood, stretched to his full height, his chin barely clearing the speaker's stand in the Clearwater City Council Chambers. Although the microphone was not lowered for him, his words rang out loud and clear in the hushed chamber as Tucker Toenjes said, "Hello, I was born on Clearwater Beach 10 years ago. And I lived here my whole life. I learned how to swim at the Clearwater Beach Pool, and I got the books I learned to read from at the Clearwater Beach Library. This summer my parents will let me ride my bike to the pool for the first time and go to the library too. I have waited my whole life to do this, and now you are taking it away from me. I got straight A's this year and got all my Sunshine State Reader books from the Beach Library."
"So," he added, "if you take everything from me, then what am I supposed to do now? My friends come to the pool with me and we play the Wii games that the library provides. My little sister is named Summer, and every year she has her birthday party at the Beach Pool and invites all her friends from off the beach. And how are we supposed to have our Chapel-By-The-Sea pool party if you take away my pool?"
"Please think about my future," he concluded. "I think I am worth it to this city and to the United States to help support my education and my development into a productive citizen and leader. Show me that you care about me as a kid on Clearwater Beach. Let me grow up with the privileges my parents had with a library and a pool near their neighborhood. Or are you going to choose to put a price on my head and my future when I am only 10 years old and my potential is unlimited."
The City Council members chuckled, the audience applauded.
Told that the next city budget would be on last Thursday night's agenda, over thirty people showed up at the Clearwater City Council meeting to request the council to preserve the two-year-old library and, almost as new, pool on Clearwater Beach. Finding the budget was not yet ready for the agenda, a large number of the beach residents chose to speak at the Citizens To Be Heard portion of the meeting, offering not only reasons for keeping the two city facilities open, but also making suggestions for where to find the money in the city's budget. One man, a quadriplegic, told the Council he had been in a wheelchair for 24 years and the only time he was able to enjoy movement of arms and legs was when he was in the Beach pool, which he frequents often when the weather is warm enough.
A resident of Island Estates pointed out to the council that the cost of operating the pool was equivalent to the real estate taxes of just four houses on Island Estates, which, along with Clearwater Beach and Sand Key, pays 40% of the real estate taxes in Clearwater.
It was suggested that the city find the money for the two facilities in the $17 million reserve of the General Fund, which comes from real estate taxes. Pointing out that the reserve fund was misnamed because city policy allowed money from the reserve fund to be spent on special projects, such as the $3 million donation to the downtown boat slips and the $3 million to pay for Beach Walk, in 2009.
"It is supposed to be spent on services," said the speaker, "but how can it be 'reserved' if it is spent elsewhere?"
One speaker suggested that, instead of closing any libraries and pools, or recreation centers, they cut across the board and just reduce the hours of operation in all the facilities so that no one community would bear the brunt of the cuts.
Another recommended that the city heat the pool and promote it as a place for visitors, as well as residents, to swim all year round. "It could be an attraction for swim teams to come here from other states," she said, "and possibly pay for itself."
A grandmother reported that she and her grandchildren enjoyed the pool frequently. "It's one of the things I can do with all three of them at once," she said.
One lady put it bluntly. "Are you closing these facilities because you have plans for other uses of the property?" she asked.
Quality of life was the argument offered by another beach resident. "I love Clearwater Beach," he said. "The library and pool are a part of the quality of life in our community and we depend on you to find a way to keep them open. My quality of life is in your hands," he concluded.
Although the council members usually do not respond to people speaking during the Citizens To Be Heard segment of the meeting, Mayor Frank Hibbard undertook to patiently point out why none of the suggestions would work. He pointed out that, although the council has a policy to set aside the reserves of the General Fund for a rainy day, they had, indeed, used $6 million last year to pay down the debts on the Downtown Boat Slips and the Beach Walk, "to reduce the interest the city would have to pay on those debts."
He answered the comment that reduced hours on all facilities would be a fairer way to save money than to close some of them, saying this would not save as much money because some expenses, such as the air conditioning of the buildings, would be continuing.
Although he thanked the citizens for speaking at the meeting, he insisted that the Council has not even seen the budget yet, so it is too soon for council members to make any comment.
"The City Manager will present the budget to us at the end of this month," said the Mayor, adding that there will be public hearings where citizens may address the City Manager's recommendations. After that the five members of the City Council and the City Manager will make the final decision.
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