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Local officials are resigned to budget cuts

Essential services may be left alone, but everything else will be on the table, they say.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published January 31, 2008


Passage of Amendment 1 on Tuesday marks a reckoning for local governments in Pinellas County that spent recent years awash in property tax income.

The limits on governments' ability to tax property that voters made part of the state Constitution come on top of curbs mandated by state lawmakers that took effect this year.

As a result, the Pinellas County School District, the county and cities from Clearwater to St. Petersburg are looking at a dimmed spending outlook in the next fiscal year.

It's not a question of whether these taxing authorities will make service or compensation cuts, but where. Budgets are starting to be developed for next year, and specifics are months away. But everything is on the table.

Essential services, things like operating a 911 system, are safe. And don't expect a parks department to suddenly disappear. But the extras -- that expanded recreation program or new library -- are history.

Also, some layoffs of public employees may be inevitable.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said Pinellas County's chief assistant county administrator, Mark Woodard. "It's going to be very, very difficult to avoid impacting street-level services."

Pinellas budget officials expect the amendment to trim about $33-million from next year's operating fund. That's about an 8 percent reduction and will return the fund to its 2005 level.

Since that time, the county has greatly expanded its social services initiatives, increasing spending on affordable housing and homeless programs. County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart said he hoped to continue those efforts but acknowledged they'll be reviewed.

"Given the challenges we face," Stewart said, "absolutely no line item remains sacred."

In Clearwater for the past two years, leaders have reduced taxes and made targeted spending cuts. Now, the city can expect to lose at least $2.7-million next year due to the amendment's passage.

Clearwater officials will again look at shuttering libraries and recreation centers, canceling special events, cutting overtime pay and, possibly, jobs.

Nothing is safe, officials said, and raising the millage rate to recover some of the lost revenue may be explored.

"All bets are off," said City Manager Bill Horne.

St. Petersburg faces an estimated $8.7-million revenue loss next year. While city leaders have not said exactly where cuts will come, social services, the arts and recreation programs are likely targets.

City Council member Jamie Bennett said it bothered him that despite the fiscal restraint his city had shown in recent years, St. Petersburg now faces potential job cuts and a destabilized position going into labor talks.

"I'm very frustrated," Bennett said. "Now we're faced with more layoffs and union negotiations for fire and police with no money to bargain with."

The amendment doesn't affect schools to the degree it does local governments. Still, according to state estimates, Pinellas schools will lose about $6.2-million next fiscal year and $54-million over five years.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox said one of the big issues as the district looks for cuts will be whether it can shoulder a projected increase in employee health insurance premiums this year.

The district has traditionally absorbed the cost of benefit increases for its 8,000 teachers, not wanting to negate raises. But this year's increase will be especially high at about $12-million.

"We'll have to look at can we fully fund that," Wilcox said. "And if we can't, what percentage can we fund?"

Wilcox said the amendment's approval somewhat dampened Tuesday's victory on another front: an overwhelming yes vote to renew a special property tax for Pinellas schools.

He said other areas that might see cuts include custodial care for schools, the school nurse program, which the district was just starting to shore up, and struggling schools that were slated to receive extra funds.

Wilcox said he planned to lobby Gov. Charlie Crist, reminding him of his pledge that the amendment would hold public education harmless.

"We haven't forgotten those words," Wilcox said.

Staff writers Tom Tobin, Mike Donila, Nicole Hutcheson and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.