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Pinellas: More money, more spending

These have been good years to be a local government. Consider those in Pinellas County, where property tax revenue for the three largest has ballooned to an estimated $581.7-million combined this year, 94 percent over 2000.

Published April 15, 2007

About this report
The St. Petersburg Times analyzed how local governments have spent property tax dollars in recent years. Reporters looked at general fund spending in both 2000 and 2005, the last year for which complete figures were available. They also looked at projections for 2007. Salary and benefit calculations were drawn in some cases from overall spending.

Pinellas County: A closer look
Pinellas County's record property tax collections have also meant healthy compensation hikes for employees. The county's total spending on salaries and benefits grew 63 percent between 2000 and this year, going from $297.7-million to $485.1-million. The total number of employees grew less than 5 percent. Average per-employee cost grew 55 percent to $74,177. Here's a look, based on projected figures, at what the top five departments are spending on compensation this year compared with 2000. Dollar amounts are in millions.
2007 Change
since 2000
Compensation costs $227.4 +87%
Employees 2,847 +19%
Compensation costs $18 +59%
Employees 329 +9%
Compensation costs $18 +101%
Employees 295 +23%
Compensation costs $16.6 +68%
Employees 208 -1.4%
Compensation costs $14.8 +80
Employees 154 +23
*This is largely parks and recreation
Source: Pinellas County Office of Management and Budget

St. Petersburg: A closer look
St. Petersburg officials say their spending has been fueled by rising costs they can't control, just like residents: retirement, insurance and energy. Dollar amounts are in millions.
2007 Change
since 2000
Employee retirement $6.5 +187%
Fire pension $7.6 +73%
Police pension $12.9 +166%
Medical insurance $13 +118%
Property insurance $3.2 +162%
Utilities $7.1 +34%
Fuel $2.4 +138%
Source: St. Petersburg

Clearwater: A closer look
Clearwater's increased spending in the past seven years has been concentrated in three departments, where personnel costs -- salaries and employee benefits -- are the biggest expense. Dollar amounts are in millions.
2000 2007
Personnel cost $20 $28.7
Employees 411 408
Personnel cost $11 $19
Employees 180.5 221
Personnel cost $6.9 $11.2
Employees 203 241
Source: Clearwater

These have been good years to be a local government. Consider those in Pinellas County, where property tax revenue for the three largest has ballooned to an estimated $581.7-million combined this year, 94 percent over 2000.

While state lawmakers seek to curb the flow of cash to local governments in response to taxpayer pressure, the St. Petersburg Times decided to look at just where Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and Clearwater were spending all that new money.

All three insist they’ve been responsible stewards in these times of plenty, focusing their spending on exactly what their communities wants.

But each government is unique. In Pinellas, one leader believes a change made years ago to the structure of the County Commission has led to increased spending; in St. Petersburg, officials attribute much of their increased spending to costs beyond their control; and in Clearwater, officials say they’re trying to build the city their constituents dream of living in.

County spending grew with board

By a mere 23 votes, the Pinellas County Commission was expanded and reorganized in 1999.

Citizens opted for a seven-member board, four of which hailed from individual districts, rather than the previous five at-large seat structure.

Supporters predicted greater accountability to the public, others hoped to boost the black community’s political strength. No one pondered if the refashioned commission would more freely spend public money.

But thanks to the unanticipated gains in property tax revenue that was to come, that’s exactly what happened, said County Commissioner Bob Stewart.

“When you have seven people at the table, you are just going to have more requests, more demands,” said Stewart, who joined the commission in 1994. “And when four people represent particular areas, it’s going to be even greater.”

Stewart believes the board shakeup is a key reason why the county’s general fund spending, largely fed by property taxes, rose 68 percent in the past seven years, from $357.5-million in 2000 to a projected $599.6-million this year. By comparison, Pinellas’ population grew about 3 percent.

The spending hikes were fed by higher property tax collections. In 2000, Pinellas brought in $221.4-million, compared to an estimated $428.3-million this year, a hike of 93 percent.

“With the flood of dollars, it lessened the competition for which programs, which services, would get funded,” Stewart said. “It made it easier to meet the perceived needs in the county as seen through the eyes of the seven commissioners.”

Fellow at-large County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who joined the commission in 1997, disagrees. Harris said that in this decade, residents have become younger and hungrier for improved government services. The commission had simply become more willing to oblige.

“We’ve just become more forward thinking,” Harris said. “There was a time in the county when if it cost money, nobody would do it.”

That debate aside, the county’s spending habits and those of other local governments in Florida have drawn disapproval, particularly from those paying the higher taxes. State lawmakers have vowed to restrain local government spending.

But what has the money bought? In Pinellas County it has gone to improve services, add hundreds of new employees and put the government on surer footing in case of catastrophe.

For example, the county’s Culture, Education and Leisure Department, which handles parks and recreation, added dozens of employees and increased its spending by more than 63 percent from seven years ago, to a projected $27.8-million this year.

Social welfare spending has also been bumped. The Human Services Department enlarged its staff and has increased a spending 75 percent, to an estimated $62.6-million in 2007.

Nearly 500 new hires were made in the Sheriff’s Office, pushing its projected spending to $270.9-million this year, a 87 percent hike. The bulk of those hires were made to staff jail expansions meant to deal with crowding.

Much of the property tax deluge has also been siphoned to the county’s reserve fund, which is an indicator of financial health to bond rating agencies and a buffer against catastrophes like hurricanes. The reserve has ballooned 284 percent in seven years to $150.8-million.

County government employees also have benefited. The average county worker will receive an estimated $74,177 in salary and benefits this year, up 55 percent since 2000.

When talking about compensation hikes, county officials like to bring up increased benefit costs beyond their control. But benefits are expected to make up roughly the same percentage of total compensation this year as they did in 2000.

While commissioners who represent a district, such as Ken Welch and John Morroni, dispute that a revamped board helped spur the accelerated spending, there are those who agree with Stewart.

Said University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson: “Politicians believe they have to perform to get re-elected. And performing often involves spending tax dollars. They have to prove their existence was justified.”

St. Petersburg: Public safety devours funds 

St. Petersburg this year expects to almost double the amount of property taxes it collects compared with just seven years ago.

Where has that extra money — $48.1-million in 2007 alone — gone?

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of budget documents from 2000 through this year suggests that the biggest chunk of property taxes, when combined with the city’s other operating funds, has paid off rising personnel costs for the city’s police and fire departments.

More than half of the city’s growth in annual spending, at $71.7-million this year, is being allocated to public safety.

The city has hired 32 more Police Department employees since 2000. And more than 90 percent of the extra $29-million the department will spend in 2007 vs. 2000 is going to salaries, pensions and health care plans. That includes increased pension contributions for police officers because of lean stock market years, said Gary Cornwell, the city’s human resources director.

During the same period, the average salaries and benefits for a Police Department employee jumped from $60,316 to $92,054 this year.

Though the city has hired no additional Fire Department employees, 80 percent of that department’s new spending goes to salaries and benefits as well.

Some city leaders said future reductions in public safety are unlikely.

“People want to pay for cops,” said City Council member Bill Foster. “Not everybody uses libraries or ports or rec centers.”

Foster, for one, has discussed potential layoffs in other departments to prepare for cuts the Florida Legislature may make. Mayor Rick Baker said the city already has instituted targeted hiring freezes.

City officials say most of the increased spending is simply out of their control. In the last seven years, medical and property insurance, fuel costs and city retirement plans such as the police and fire pensions have drained an additional $26-million, the city says.

At the same time, the city has stashed away an additional $11-million in reserves to protect against a hurricane or economic downturn.

The city notes it has lowered its property tax rate in four of the last six years and 14 of the last 17.

Critics, conversely, point to millions of dollars in subsidies the city hands out each year.

The city has pumped $1.8-million into the fledgling Port of St. Petersburg since 2000, yet has received little in return. This year, the city is expected to spend an additional $700,000 at the port.

It also gives money to the Pier Aquarium, the Albert Whitted Airport, Sunken Gardens and the Mahaffey Theater.

“I believe in reducing people’s taxes,” Baker said. “There’s always places to cut. We’re going to continue to try to do that. But I don’t think we have millions of dollars to cut.

Clearwater concentrates spending

Clearwater leaders say they want to create the highest quality of life possible for their 110,600 residents.

But that means spending money, a lot.

In the past seven years, as Clearwater’s population has grown just under 2 percent, the city’s annual spending on day-to-day operations has mushroomed by 52 percent, to $121.9-million. Fueling the bulk of that increase has been property tax collections, which now account for $4.10 of every $10 in the city’s general fund and have grown 109 percent since 2000.

About 75 percent of the $42-million in increased annual spending has been funneled into three departments: police, fire, and parks and recreation. The city has also doubled its reserves to $20.5-million, more than twice the level required by city law.

The increase in property values prompted city leaders to lower Clearwater’s property tax rate this year, resulting in some savings for homesteaded owners but not necessarily other property owners. Still, city leaders said they’ve been good stewards.

“If you look at the allocations, they’re consistent with our emphasis on the public safety and the quality of life,” City Manager Bill Horne said. “This is something the citizens over the years have told us what they want.”

Clearwater is a city with more amenities than seven years ago -- something residents have told city leaders in various “visioning” sessions that they want.

Since 2000, the city has built two fire stations, a larger main library, and parks and recreation facilities. Those facilities were built with sales tax money or other revenue, but they’re now staffed and maintained with the general fund.

The new library, for example, requires more energy to heat it than the old one. It also needs about 10 new full-time employees, said budget director Tina Wilson.

Clearwater’s Fire Department, with 221 workers, has added about 40.5 employees. The reason is twofold: 22 firefighters were hired to staff the new Sand Key and Northwest stations, which also added $2.2-million to the city’s annual operating costs. But the city also reduced the workweek for firefighters, requiring it to also hire more firefighters.

The Police Department hasn’t hired new officers. Nonetheless, its personnel costs also have jumped more than $8-million due to higher salaries, health care, pension, energy and insurance costs.

The average salary and benefits for a police officer has jumped from $49,026 in 2001 to $63,755 six years later in 2007.

The other big new spender for the city has been the Parks and Recreation Department. New or expanded facilities have led to 38 more employees, higher energy costs and more expensive maintenance contracts. Since 2000, the city has added upkeep of the Long Center, the North Greenwood Recreation Aquatic Complex, Ross Norton Aquatic Complex and the beach swimming pool. Additional facilities have been added at Kapok, Glen Oaks and Myron A. Smith Bayview parks.

Also adding to the city’s bottom line has been higher property and liability insurance costs, which have nearly tripled to $2.9-million this year; health insurance costs are now $6,400 per employee, up almost 150 percent in seven years; and energy costs are up nearly threefold in just the past two years to $3.8-million.

[Last modified April 15, 2007, 05:34:04]

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