Clearwater pinches $7.5M from budget

Published May 5, 2007

Clearwater residents will see fewer recreation centers, libraries, beach shuttle services, fireworks displays, special events and concerts, and less landscaping starting in October, the City Council has decided. And also going by the wayside: roughly 90 city jobs.

City leaders, who signed off on $7.5-million in budget cuts Thursday night for 2007-08, warned that's just the beginning as they aim to slice $12-million to $15-million from what it would cost next year to continue current city services.

City staff will next hunt for another $4.5-million in cuts, possibly including a seven-member firefighting squad that performs heavy-duty excavation rescues, as well as a few school police officers.

"The next round is going to be significantly more painful, " Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "Every department is going to be looked at - that's just the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. If there was a bunch of fluff and fat in our budget, we would have taken advantage of (it)."

The budget cuts come in anticipation of next month's special legislative session during which Florida lawmakers are expected to significantly curtail local governments' property tax revenue.

Exactly what the Legislature will pass - and what it will do to Clearwater's coffers - is unknown. Tax cut plans debated in the annual legislative session that ended Friday varied widely. But city officials said they chose the $12-million to $15-million target, which would represent up to a 12 percent cut in next year's operating budget, as a best guess.

If city leaders had kept services flat, city staff estimate the city's operating fund would have jumped 9.4 percent to $128.4-million. With $12-million in cuts, though, the spending would be reduced to $116.4-million in 2007-08 from this year's $121.9-million budget.

Last week, City Manager Bill Horne had proposed a total of $8.5-million in cuts. But council members balked at $1-million that cut a firefighting squad and the school police officers and removed that item from the list.

But on Friday, Assistant City Manager Garry Brumback said they were probably back on the chopping block.

"They were the last taken off, so they're probably the first back on, " he said. "When you're talking about this level of reduction, there is nobody that is going to be untouched. Police and fire represent half of my total budget and if you're reducing at that level, I can't just take half my budget off the table."

City officials have already said they'll try to avoid layoffs and use attrition and a hiring freeze on nonessential positions to reduce the work force. Of the roughly 90 jobs already identified as cuts, 27 are currently vacant.

But most cuts will get no such reprieve, officials indicated Thursday. Also on the cut list are reduced library operating hours and closure of the beach library branch. The beach recreation center will also be closed, except for private rentals.

The Morningside Recreation Center will shut down, but the swimming pools will remain open. The North Greenwood center will be turned over to a nonprofit group. And the budget for the beach shuttle service, the Jolley Trolley, will be cut in half. What impact that will have on the four-bus shuttle service is unclear, said shuttle president Bill Kirbas.

The budget cuts are the result of a public outcry that began last year over rising property taxes for commercial and investment properties that aren't protected from year-to-year increases like homesteaded homeowners are under the Save Our Homes 3 percent cap.

Shaving $8-million from next year's budget is expected to reduce the city's tax rate about 6 percent, city leaders say

But Thursday night's meeting highlighted the political minefield city officials enter, even as they respond to the demand for tax breaks.

A number of residents asked the council to reconsider some cuts, particularly in the city's popular parks and recreation department, which accounts for more than $2-million of the $7.5-million in approved cuts.

The mayor said he hopes such residents will talk with their state lawmakers.

And Stephen Sarnoff, president of a city-employee union, said he doesn't believe residents realize what is happening.

"Once we give up these services it will be too expensive to start them again, " said Sarnoff, president of Communications Workers of America Local 3179.

The news of the cuts hit hard at Morningside Recreation Center on Friday where employees and visitors said they didn't know the council had signed off on the reductions.

Debbie Roberts, a server, said she is worried about next year, when she'll need to find a full-time summer program for her 9-year-old daughter.

"I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed, " she said. "If they think this place isn't being used, they're wrong."

Fast Facts:

Some of bigger cuts

City leaders have agreed to about $7.5-million in spending cuts as the administration puts together the upcoming budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year. A sample of some of the bigger cuts:

Two jobs in the city manager's office: $103, 000

Three jobs in development services: $216, 000

Four jobs in information technology: $211, 000

Six jobs in the fire department: $328, 000

Eight jobs from the Police Department: $502, 000

Donation to the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Program: $100, 000

Reduced library hours: $104, 000

Close beach library branch: $185, 000

Reduce Jolley Trolley: $229, 000

Close Morningside Recreation Center: $217, 000

Close Beach Recreation Center except for rentals: $90, 000

Reduce landscape management team: $283, 000

Cut funding for special events: $108, 000

Turn North Greenwood Recreation Center over to nonprofit: $680, 000

Source: City of Clearwater