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Politics

Tax ax could chop up services

Local officials are preparing doomsday lists of drastic cuts and closures if the Legislature rolls back property taxes.

By MIKE DONILA
Published March 21, 2007


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In Clearwater, city leaders are warning at least one of the proposals under review in Tallahassee will come at a heavy cost: the Police Department, four out of five libraries and more than half of its recreation centers.

And that's just for starters.

Clearwater and local governments from across the state are preparing for what they say could be catastrophic hits to their annual budgets if House Republicans' proposal to roll back local governments' property tax revenue to the 2001 level, with adjustments for inflation and growth.

"You would just close down those departments that are not police and fire," James Bennett of the St. Petersburg council said of his own city staff's efforts to identify service cuts. "We're talking about closing libraries and parks because we don't have the people to operate them."

St. Petersburg estimates it could lose $34.5-million under the House plan, and has prepared an analysis of every proposal the Legislature is considering.

The House plan, the harshest on local government coffers, is competing with other property tax relief plans from the Senate and Gov. Charlie Crist to address the growing ire of property owners. Crist has proposed a plan to cut local revenue by doubling the state's $25,000 homestead exemption for homeowners; and the Senate is discussing rollbacks to 2004 levels.

Are local government's proposed cut lists realistic plans or political propaganda aimed at swaying the state Legislature? Either way, most city officials aren't apologizing.

"I expect city residents across the state to be horrified. This is just the first list that shows what kinds of things you can cut," Clearwater council member John Doran said of the two-page memo on proposed cuts written by the city staff in response to the House plan. Officials believe Clearwater would stand to lose up to $18-million in revenue, or 15 percent of the city's $121.9-million general operating fund.

Doran's comments echo those made last week by Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, president of the Florida Association of Counties, who warned that legislators are not concerning themselves with what the cuts will mean to local services.

The Florida League of Cities has even produced a 60-page cheat sheet on the topic for its members, stressing that revenue-neutral relief for local governments is preferable.

But not all local governments are hitting the panic button just yet. The Hillsborough County Commission has taken the exact opposite approach.

Hillsborough officials say the House plan would cost the county about $190-million next year, but officials have declined to draft a doomsday cut list, which, they say, can lead to unwarranted public concern, as well as antagonize the Legislature. And some officials have voiced a sympathetic view, saying they understand state lawmakers are under pressure to reduce taxes.

"We have not put together anything that says, 'This is what we're going to have to cut' because we think, first of all, that would be pretty premature," said Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean during a budget workshop last week. "And we don't believe they'll cut as drastically as they're saying now."

Tampa, which would lose $49-million in property tax revenue under the proposal, has not produced a list of potential cuts.

Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt said he's asked department heads to craft several budgets based on a variety of scenarios that envision greater and lesser degrees of property tax cuts.

Latvala said she sees the public education value of Clearwater's document. But she said too much remains unknown for Pinellas to go a similar route.

Clearwater officials said their planning is warranted. Property tax changes are most likely coming and they want to be ready, they said.

"I think all of it needs to be discussed ... because we're going to have to reset our priorities," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "You're talking about a monumental shift."

Clearwater finance officials were charged by City Manager Bill Horne with finding ways to make up for the possible losses. The staff proposed turning over the city's policing services to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to save "as much as $7-million to $10-million, but the service level would be quite different (than) our current policing efforts," wrote Tina Wilson, the city's budget director.

The city's Police Department has an operating budget of about $35.6 million, almost 30 percent of the city's general fund. The department has about 420 full-time positions, including more than 230 rank-and-file officers.

In addition, the memo, which lists $18-million to $20-million in cuts, said the revenue gap would require other reductions like closing recreation centers, libraries and a nature park.

If the purpose is to get attention, city leaders will, said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and a former member of the City Commission. "It sounds good. It gets the people riled up."

But he doubts it will do much to sway the Legislature from its goal of property tax relief.

"Every citizen that has bothered to call, e-mail, knock on my door, property tax relief is their No. 1 issue," Hooper said. "I have not had one soul come up to me and say I'm happy with the taxes I'm paying."

Times Staff Writers Bill Varian, Alex Leary, Paul Swider, Will Van Sant and Janet Zink contributed to this story.

Fast Facts:

Clearwater identifies cuts

In a two-page memo written in February by the Clearwater city staff for the City Council, between $18-million and $20-million in possible service cuts were identified in anticipation the city could lose $18-million annually under a House plan to roll back property taxes to 2001. The memo, obtained Tuesday by the St. Petersburg Times, proposes:

- Turning over policing to the Sheriff's Office, saving $7-million to $10-million.

- Shutting down four of the city's five libraries, $2.5-million.

- Closing the Harborview Center where events are held, $706,000.

- Cutting back on road maintenance, $1.5-million.

- Closing four recreation centers, $2-million.

- Closing the Moccasin Lake Nature Park, $238,000.

- Closing the Sailing Center on Sand Key, $56,000.

- Eliminate funding for Ruth Eckerd Hall, $477,000.

- Eliminate funding for Jolley Trolley shuttle service on the beach, $229,000.

- Eliminate the Office of Aging program, $100,000.

- Reduce beach lifeguards, $250,000.

- Eliminate the Urban Forestry program, $881,000.

- Reduce landscape maintenance at city facilities, $600,000.

- Eliminate the Neighborhood Service program, $336,000.

- Eliminate the Cultural Affairs and Performing Arts programs, $259,000.

- Eliminate all special events and all special event cash sponsorships, $1-million.

[Last modified March 21, 2007, 01:43:36]


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