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Saturday August 2nd 2014

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Library Wars

Following a week of back-and-forth over library funding during which city of Pensacola Administrator Bill Reynolds equated recent positions taken by Escambia County as “extortion,” county commissioners unloaded this morning, connecting the library issue with other points of contention like Gulf Breeze’s recent natural gas episode and the city’s lack of contribution to public transit.

Escambia County recently informed the city it may need to further reduce its funding contribution towards the West Florida Public Library System, citing a need to hire staff so that county library branches can avoid having hours cut. The city, which manages the system, had cut branch hours after the county cut $165,000 from the its contribution.

Reynolds wrote a letter to County Administrator Randy Oliver defending the city’s decision to cut hours—the impacts of which are to be felt greatest at county branches. He said city residents shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of a county funding decision. The administrator was also quoted in the press as calling the county’s intention to further reduce funding unless hours were restored as “extortion.”

“I call horse crap on that,” said Escambia County Commissioner Kevin White during this morning’s Committee of the Whole meeting.

Commissioner Grover Robinson said the two entities needed to further discuss the library issue. He alluded to past attempts by the county to absorb the library system entirely—attributed their failure to pension disagreements—and suggested the county needed to explore dissolving the current library interlocal agreement with the city.

“I’d love to sit down with them,” Robinson said. “I’d love for the county administrator to arrange a sit-down with the mayor and the city council.”

White said that would be “a waste of time.”

“They’re so dysfunctional,” he said.

Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson complained that the county had been “villainized” by the city. He linked the library funding to the city’s decision to pull its share of funding of the Escambia County Area Transit system years ago. The chairman suggested the county retroactively bill the city for its portion of public transit funding—with the commissioners pegging that amount at around $5.5 million—and subtract its portion of the library funding from that bill.

“That’s my starting point,” Wilson said.

Commissioner Marie Young urged civility:  “I think we need to find a way to solve the problem, rather than vengeance.”

Vice Chairman Gene Valentino said he had no intention of meeting with city officials. The commissioner recounted that the city and county also had other areas of concern, citing the disagreement over Gulf Breeze’s decision to supply Pensacola Beach with natural gas.

“Let’s seize control of the library system,” Valentino said.

There was also discussion about the possibility of charging a library-card fee to fund the library system, or collecting money via a library-specific tax. Commissioner Robinson instructed the county attorney to draft up a motion for next week’s meeting that would offer the commission an opportunity to exit the current library interlocal agreement with the city.