tampabay.com

We got message, local leaders say

In the wake of Amendment 1, school, city and county officials look for areas to cut budgets.

By LETITIA STEIN and BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writers
Published January 31, 2008


TAMPA - Local governments are bracing for tough decisions now that voters have demanded lower property tax bills.

For months, officials have warned that even modest tax reductions could spell doom and gloom to cherished services. But now that the people have spoken, officials are pledging to protect the things that matter most, while offering few specifics on what the future holds.

"We are going to have to make a lot of tough choices," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said.

Iorio said priorities include critical services, like emergency calls to 911. And she said there may be ways to trim the police budget without affecting officers on the street.

Like school and county officials, Iorio said she expected the property tax amendment to pass and the city already was looking for ways to become more efficient. Amendment 1 will have an estimated $11-million hit on the city's nearly $350-million operating budget, city finance director Bonnie Wise said.

That total doesn't include the impact of a provision allowing longtime homeowners to carry accrued tax benefits under Save Our Homes to a new home. Officials say there is no way to estimate what that will do to government coffers.

One thing is clear, Iorio said: "There's just no way we can get there without affecting positions," because personnel costs are three-fourths of the city budget.

Hillsborough school officials are focused on protecting classroom instruction.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia projected an $8-million impact from the property tax amendment on revenue to run and build schools.

She said the financial picture for schools won't be clear until the end of the legislative session this spring. Lawmakers have promised to hold schools harmless while reforming property taxes. Still, Elia expected schools to prepare to feel the pinch of difficult economic times.

"We understand the need for fiscal frugality," Elia said.

Hillsborough County budget officials do not have a list of potential cuts prepared, but have been telling department directors for months to begin prioritizing spending programs. Last year, the county prepared a list in response to legislatively mandated cuts. That gives them a starting point.

"Nobody has told us they want less service," said Eric Johnson, director of management and budget for the county. "They simply have told us that they want to pay less for it. What we're trying to come up with now is a more thought-out plan."

In theory, at least, local governments could move to increase tax rates to offset some of the increases to homestead exemptions on residential property tax bills. Some local governments likely will, but Deputy County Administrator Wally Hill said he doesn't anticipate that happening in Hillsborough.