tampabay.com

Cuts could include police, fire

By ELENA LESLEY
Published April 25, 2007


TARPON SPRINGS -- Property tax relief in this little city could cut deep into public safety services and halt funding for civic and cultural offerings, according to a proposal put forward by city staff.

The dire hit list appeared Tuesday on the city's Web site, as legislators in Tallahassee continue negotiations over different plans for cutting property taxes. The list has not been endorsed by city leaders, but rather reflects the possible recommendations of City Manager Ellen Posivach and her staff.

Mayor Beverley Billiris said she wished it hadn't been posted at all because there is such uncertainty about what the Legislature will decide.

"I think staff wanted people to understand the severity of what's going on," Billiris said. "But this is just one plan. It's what could happen, but not necessarily what will happen."

The proposed cuts anticipate what could happen if the House's plan to roll back property taxes to 2001 levels moves forward, cutting Tarpon Spring's property tax revenue by $2.6-million, or roughly 13 percent of the city's $20-million general fund.

The cut list appears with contact information for prominent lawmakers and the governor and urges viewers to contact leaders "to impact the outcome" of the legislative debate.

Billiris agreed that voters need to be involved: "The situation's drastic and people need to make their voices heard in Tallahassee." But she said she wished the staff had included more information about the Senate's less-drastic tax cut plan.

The Senate's proposal only rolls back property taxes to 2005. So far there's been no official estimates how hard that would hit individual cities.

Along with eliminating nearly all recreation programs, reducing library hours and closing all local museums, the staff's recommendation includes chopping nine police positions and six firefighters.

Billiris said she "will do everything to prevent cutting police and fire," including options such as freezing senior staff salaries.

But the mayor has repeatedly said Tarpon Springs doesn't have much extra to cut.

During a recent property tax forum held by state Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, Billiris asked the former city commissioner how he could accuse city governments of wasting money, since he had firsthand knowledge of the city's budget.

From the House floor Tuesday, Nehr said he had confidence in Posivach's ability to "make the last nickel squeak," and said legislators may be able to include some exemptions for cities forced to cut essential services. In order to get that kind of assistance, cities would have to prove that they had truly tried to cut everywhere else first.

However, no such broad caveat for essential city services has emerged yet in legislative negotiations.

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4167.

CUTTING TARPON SPRINGS' BUDGET

Among city staff's recommendations:

1. Eliminate two positions in the Finance Department.

2. Eliminate the Youth Employment Program and student outreach programs.

3. Eliminate nine police officer positions, including all school youth officers.

4. Eliminate three firefighters and three driver-engineer positions.

5. Cut two library positions, reduce operating hours and eliminate outreach and literacy programs.

6. Close the Heritage Museum, Train Depot/Historical Society, Safford House Museum and Cultural Center.

To see the full list, go to www.ci.tarpon-springs.fl.us and click on "Tax Reform Impact on Tarpon Springs."