Officials gently ask for relief on cuts

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

TAMPA - Officials from several government agencies in Hillsborough told the county's legislative delegation Friday that they appreciate the hard choices they face.

They understand people want property tax relief. They said they know the state's hurting for cash, too.

Their nearly unified message: remember us kindly.

The government heads said they already have made cuts that have resulted in layoffs or other tough choices, either from property tax rate rollbacks or state cuts spawned by flagging sales tax collections. More cuts, they said, could results in service reductions that people would really notice.

"I don't have any programs I can cut," said Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, saying that 95.5 percent of his budget goes toward salary and benefits. "We have people. When you think about law enforcement, think about state attorneys."

County Administrator Pat Bean told the legislative delegation that a property tax rollback approved by the state this year shaved $56-million from her budget, forcing her to get rid of hundreds of jobs.

If voters approve a second phase of property tax changes, the hit to the county's bottom line would be even greater.

"If the new item were to pass, we're likely to talk about much more dollars," Bean said.

But in all the comments during the delegation's workshop Friday, each of the speakers struck a conciliatory tone. They said they recognized the pressure legislators are facing to provide property tax relief.

Just the same, they emphasized they also have priorities they hope the state won't force them to skimp on, from new roads to continuing efforts at economic development.

"We think this is an important goal - tax relief," said County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who along with Commissioner Al Higginbotham appeared with Bean. "We also feel transportation is important."

Several speakers, including Bean, took the occasion to underscore their own efforts to reduce spending. Bean mentioned that the county is looking at ways to consolidate some types of services with other government.

County Tax Collector Doug Belden noted that spending in his shop went down last year and that he has installed performance measurements and goals for all services his offices offer.

The annual meeting is a chance for representatives of local government to stump for spending priorities or other legislation they are hoping to push. There was some of that Friday, but the budget cutting tone underscored most of the dialogue.

Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern encouraged support for a bill sponsored by Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, that would give Hillsborough's three cities representation on the county's Environmental Protection Commission.

Invoking melting icecaps and Al Gore, she said the need is urgent for strong environmental protection.

By adding members from other governments, the EPC would be more immune from special interest pressure to water down those protections, she said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or 813 226-3387.