tampabay.com

Dozens of jobs could vanish

The property tax cut puts up to 48 county jobs in jeopardy.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published June 27, 2007


CLEARWATER -- Up to four dozen Pinellas County employees may lose their jobs under a staff reduction plan officials unveiled Tuesday in response to the upcoming property tax cut.

The 48 jobs, combined with 65 vacant slots, are endangered as the county aims to spend roughly $31.5-million less next year in property tax dollars than it spent in 2007.

The cuts are part of an effort to meet the state Legislature's mandate earlier this month that requires local governments to roll back property tax collections.

The layoff proposal comes five days after the County Commission tentatively agreed to cut funding to several programs, including indigent health care and recreation services.

More details on budget cuts will come July 13, when the commission considers a preliminary spending plan. Any layoffs are likely to be effective at the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.

The job cuts impact a range of departments and would mean fewer building inspectors, code enforcement officers, animal care specialists, clerical workers and others. Overall, however, the numbers are modest. There are about 2,700 county employees.

County Administrator Steve Spratt said attempts will be made to place some affected employees in other vacant jobs, making it impossible to say how much the reductions will save or how many people will be left without a paycheck.

"It's obviously unfortunate," he said. "These people have families."

At this point, there is no plan for severance packages. Workers will only be entitled to accrued vacation and sick time when they head out the door.

Still unknown is how many other employees who work for the county's constitutional offices are at risk of losing their jobs.

All five constitutional officers -- the Clerk of the Circuit Court, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections, Property Appraiser and the Sheriff's Office -- are mulling staff reductions, but only the appraiser and Sheriff's Office have come up with firm numbers.

Eight positions are to be eliminated from the appraiser's office, four of which are now filled. The sheriff has identified 69 positions, 36 of which are filled.

Unlike all other divisions of county government, which are trimming their budgets between 5 and 15 percent, the sheriff's office's proposed spending for 2008 is actually about 1 percent higher than this year's $271-million.

That's largely because of staffing needs at a new medical wing of the county jail. The sheriff has said he'll cut funding for youth drug education, policing of environmental lands and school security officers. The county school board has said it might help restore cuts to school officers.

While some county leaders, like Commissioner Bob Stewart, have choked on the notion that the Sheriff's Office alone may see a spending increase, Sheriff Jim Coats said the cuts already being considered may go too far.

"Our crime rate is consistently going down," he said. "And my concern is that if we start making reductions in our juvenile programs and some other areas, crime is going to increase."

County Commissioner Ken Welch expressed frustration that the property tax rollback will do little for the commercial property owners most stung by soaring tax bills during the record run-up in property values between 2002 and last year.

"It's one thing to sacrifice and another thing to sacrifice in vain," he said. "That's the sad part of this."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.