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2012 Golden Dozen Editorial Award

Is this what we really want?

I’m referring to the library controversy, which has gripped the Library Board, Town Council and their respective attorneys, as well as a group of citizens who are investigating their options to stop the planned expansion of the Beach Library.

What started with a few citizens questioning the funding for the expansion last fall, has morphed into an ongoing battle pitting island residents against each other, the Library Board and the Town Council.

There is a lot of time, not to mention billable hours racking up on this issue. Maybe it’s time to call a time-out on this and put some serious thought into where this is going and what we really want to accomplish.

For those of you who might have just joined us...

The Beach Library $9 million expansion plans go back 10 years. Eight years ago the property was purchased. Five years ago, the community was asked for their input. Three years ago, the architects began to design the building. Two years ago, a fund-raising effort was launched. In 2009, a bond for the last $2 million needed was secured. In 2010, plans were finalized and permits applied for. Ground-breaking on the expansion is within sight.

The Library Board raised millage rates over the past 5 years to pay for the expansion. That money has been saved and along with the bond and donations, the project is fully funded.

On the other side of the coin, during those ten years, there were no contested elections for Library Board seats. The elections, as well as meeting notices were properly published according to state law. (Note that state law requires these to be published in a daily newspaper in the county the district resides in.) The economy has tanked since public input was gathered and the project began. The millage rate for the library has gone from .4719 in 2005 to .5989 in 2010. There is a general feeling that any tax is too much especially for something "non-essential”, like a library. Throughout all of this, few citizens have shown any interest in the workings of the Library Board. Until last fall.

Chapter 189 of the Florida Statutes requires that all Special Districts provide a public facilities report to each local general purpose government, meaning in the library’s case, Lee County and the Town of Fort Myers Beach. They also are to file a schedule of meetings. In addition, Chapter 189 provides for oversight review by Lee County.

It’s safe to say that I can count on one hand the number of people living on this island who knew a whit about Chapter 189 prior to Town Attorney Jim Humphrey’s discussion at a December Council meeting. Fire Chief Mike Becker, would be one person aware of the reporting requirement as he tells us the Fire District has been complying with Chapter 189 since before he became Chief.

Since Mr. Humphrey’s discussion, the Library Director, Dr. Leroy Hommerding, has filed a report with Lee County.

Let’s not be rushing to judgement on the basis of Chapter 189 just yet. Town Council seems to be taking the right tack in addressing the larger issue of special districts within the Town, by asking each one for a facilities report. They are also opening dialogue with the Library Board, which is always a good thing.

From our viewpoint, we see a contingent of concerned citizens, maybe 10-15 strong, who are writing the letters and speaking up to the Library Board and Town Council in opposition to the Library expansion. I’m sure there are more because at this week’s council workshop, a petition was presented by a resident who claims to have gathered over 300 Beach resident signatures on a petition that declares the expansion a wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars.

Where are these 300 residents who oppose the expansion? If they truly are opposed, they should be telling the Library Board directly. If they aren’t serious enough about their opposition to do that, then they aren’t very serious about it, are they?

I read letters to our paper and hear public comment in meetings from the same core of people. I admire their dedication and commitment, but where is the multitude they claim to represent?

Same goes for the supporters of the expansion. The expansion should not be considered a done deal. If you support the expansion, you should be telling the Library Board.

From my seat, the more likely options look like A) Library expansion as planned or B) The expansion is put on hold for several years until the economy recovers.

I don’t envision a C) Give all the accumulated tax funds back to taxpayers. That option was suggested by one opponent at Council this week who explained in detail how to calculate your refund. That is so unlikely as to be called a fantasy. The money accumulated for this expansion belongs to the Library District and cannot be passed to any other taxing district, as has also been suggested by opponents.

Any postponement of the expansion should be considered in light of the likelihood of increased building costs in the future.

I’m left with option A, build the expansion.

Sure, the Library Board could have been more open to public comment on the expansion when the opponents woke up last fall and decided they didn't like the idea of a $9 million expansion during a recession. As a Special District, they should have known about the Chapter 189 requirements. They also could have held a referendum back in 2005 when they sought public opinion, however saw no need for at the time.

Do we really want a legal battle with the Town or County opposing the Library Board on this expansion? Is this what Beach residents really want?

The Library Board has the money and the plans all in place now to proceed with an expansion that has been in the works for a decade. I admire the Board’s planning. It’s not often that a long range plan like this comes to fruition with full funding in place.

Build it!