Round 2 cuts fire and police

Clearwater readies proposals for a whittled budget.

Published May 22, 2007

Clearwater would stop paying for police officers in schools, would eliminate a firefighting rescue squad and cut $3-million from its infrastructure plans under the latest proposals for shaving city spending.

The cost-cutting proposals - which the City Council is expected to consider by mid July - are the second round since city leaders decided earlier this year they would shrink next year's operational spending to about $116.5-million, roughly 4.5 percent less than this year's. The new fiscal year starts in October.

The budget cuts come in anticipation of June's special legislative session when Florida lawmakers may significantly curtail local governments' property tax revenue.

What the Legislature will pass and how much it will cut Clearwater's revenue are unknown. The city's self-imposed $116.5-million spending cap anticipates collecting at least $12-million fewer property tax dollars in the coming year than it would under current law.

"A lot of people say we've been wasting money, but if there was a lot of fat in the budget, then we would have cut that already because it would be pain-free, " Mayor Frank Hibbard said.

The City Council earlier this month approved cuts to recreation centers, libraries, special events and about 90 city jobs - roughly one-third of which are already vacant.

And it told city staff to go find another $4.5-million in cost savings.

The city staff's proposed cuts include:

-Cut the city's fire rescue squad, $700, 000. Its seven members will be put into vacant firefighter positions.

-End city's subsidy for four school resource officers, $90, 000.

-Forgo optional pension payments that were planned, $800, 000.

-No longer use property tax revenues for road improvements, $3-million.

The last item means any mandatory road improvements would be financed by proceeds from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, which would likely bump other infrastructure or building plans.

"The council would have to be comfortable with this in order to do it, " City Manager Bill Horne said. "But in these times we have to look at it."

It was also unclear how the city's cuts to the school resource officers would affect police presence in Clearwater's two high schools.

The city pays about one-third of the cost of the four officers with the schools picking up the rest.

Horne said the next few months are going to "make for interesting conversations" during the public meetings.

Already, he said, residents throughout Clearwater are asking the city to reconsider many of the cuts.

For example, Suzanne Boschen, 59, a beach resident, said the city "continues to alienate and eviscerate" the tourist industry along the beach.

"For a city that espouses that they are a tourist-heavy city, we've done everything to drive them away, " she said.

"We're taking away the trolley, the Internet access at the library and dancing at the recreation center. Yeah, we have the beach, but how long can you lay out there before you get sunburned and want to do something else?"

Fast Facts:

Budget milestones

Here's a look at some dates leading up to the adoption of Clearwater's 2007-08 budget. The City Council meets in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

June 12: Florida Legislature begins two-week special session.

June 30: City administration gives the council a proposed annual spending plan.

July 16: First budget workshop for the council.

July 19: Council sets the millage rate.

July 25: Second Council budget workshop.

Aug. 13: Public hearing on the budget.

Sept. 6: Council's first formal consideration of final budget.

Sept. 20: Council votes on budget.

Oct. 1: Fiscal year 2007-08 begins.