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Pay for ‘enhancements?’

Sarasota County says it will pay for a library branch. Extras will be up to private donations. Before this gets too far, the town needs data.

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Early on in our history, when facing a crucial decision on whether to go forward with a new venture, an experienced entrepreneur told us: “You know, a lot of times, data can make that decision for you.”

We wanted to make an investment on gut, instinct and our excitement about the opportunity. But having data helped us make a rational, intelligent decision.

That scenario came to mind after watching Longboat Key town commissioners discuss Monday afternoon next steps toward the development and construction of a Sarasota County public library branch at the Town Center Green.

Clearly, this is a case of the proverbial “done deal.” In the works for almost two years, the town of Longboat Key and Sarasota County have an agreement in principle in which the county has agreed to construct a library branch and operate it. 

In fiscal 2023, the county allocated $1 million for the planning and design of the library. On Monday, Carolyn Brown, Longboat’s support services director, informed commissioners the process has progressed to the point that the county has selected an architect and construction manager.

Brown also told commissioners the county is envisioning the library itself would be 8,000 square feet, the cost of which county tax dollars would cover. Cost so far unknown.

But apparently the agreement also stipulates that any additional space the town wants — what the county is calling “enhancements” — will come from private funds, presumably philanthropic Longboaters. 

Before we circle back to the matter of having data, we’re hoping Longboaters who are reading this are reacting as you should: 

What!? Longboaters raise private funds to pay for “enhancements!?” 

That’s right. Included under that enhancement rubric are spaces that have been on the town’s wish list for more than 20 years and are spaces that also were part of the plans envisioned when the town and Ringling College of Art and Design partnered six years ago. Those included such spaces as a community center that could accommodate more than 200 people; meeting rooms; perhaps Temple Israel’s popular Longboat Key Education Center. At one time during the Ringling College discussions there was talk of a black box theater. 

No, the county says, any of those spaces, you Longboaters foot the bill.

Fair enough. Well, maybe not.

‘We pay a lot of money’

Former Mayor Jim Brown, who has been involved in community center efforts for 20 years and spearheaded efforts with Ringling College for almost three years, doesn’t agree. He told Longboat commissioners Monday: “We pay the county a lot of money. Nineteen percent of the county’s taxes come from the people of Longboat Key in the Sarasota half of Longboat Key. 

“I’ve seen them build $100 million facilities all over this county. I don’t know why we should have to pay for a few little enhancements that we want to make,” Brown said.

“So I think we need to push them on that. … I really believe that. … I don’t know if anybody else thinks we should do it. But that’s my thought.”

That’s our thought, too. Not only that, what about Manatee County? 

Yes, the library branch will be sited in the Sarasota County portion of Longboat Key, but Longboat residents in the Manatee half of the Key will be using the library and other enhancements as well.

To Brown’s point, indeed, Longboat Key taxpayers send a lot of money to the two counties every year. According to the town’s finance department, Longboaters in the Sarasota County half of the Key contributed $18.75 million in property taxes in the most recent fiscal year; Manatee Longboaters contributed $14.3 million — $33 million a year.

On top of that, Sarasota County collected $3.3 million in tourist development taxes from hotels and rentals; Manatee County collected $2.6 million.

Let’s not forget the millions sent across the bay to the two counties’ public school systems, which far exceeds the $33 million.   

The point being: As Brown noted, “We pay … a lot of money.” Every year.

And in return from the counties, Longboaters and Longboat Key receive what benefits? As Ben Stein, the monotone economics professor in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” said: “Someone? Anyone? Anyone?”

Sarasota County footed most of the cost to remodel Bayfront Park. And every now and then Manatee County throws the Key a few bucks for beach management at Beer Can Island. Surely, someone from those two entities will send us a long list of paybacks (like driving privileges on their crowded roads; riding our bikes, maybe, on Legacy Trail). 

But, c’mon. A lot more love would go a long way.

We cringe at the thought of how much Sarasota County is willing to spend on its 8,000-square-foot branch. Out in Lakewood Ranch, the county recently opened 25,000 square feet of a 50,000-square-foot library that has a price tag (so far) of $17.6 million.

On a per-square-foot basis, that’s $352. Multiply that by 8,000, and you get a $2.8 million facility.

That in exchange for $33 million a year?

Again, to former Mayor Brown’s point: “I think we need to push them on that.”

What do the data show?

But even before taking up how much each county should be contributing to this library branch and enhancements, let’s go back to the subject of data — and the whole idea of a fixed county library branch to begin with.

Stick with us here. We’re not arguing against a county-owned and operated library branch. But what should be gathered is data that make the case for spending however much money is to be spent on such a facility.

That information is especially germane, particularly in light of the comments of one of the town’s fiscal watchdogs, Dr. James Whitman. He commented at Monday’s Town Commission meeting there is a contingent of Longboaters who question spending any money at all to build a public library branch. It was amusing when, to make his point, he held up his cell phone and noted, “We all have a library right here.”

Indeed, what are the data?

We were told the town has no data on the usage of the town’s privately operated library. Nor has the town obtained data showing how library usage has fared since the recent opening of Manatee’s Lakewood Ranch branch; or after Sarasota County opened its Fruitville Road branch and reopened its remodeled Gulf Gate branch. 

What happened in years two? Years three? What did they learn?

What’s more, how much did the county spend on the construction of all of its branches?

For that matter, what would Longboaters say if asked whether a branch should be built; would they use it; and who should pay? The answers are likely predictable, but there may be some surprises.

All of that data and information is useful and likely revealing. 

A public library branch, coupled with community center space, meeting rooms and an education center are a big deal. The Town Commission should not let Sarasota County commandeer the outcome. 



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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