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    Penny shortfalf surprises commissioners

    But Pinellas County administrators say they warned that Penny for Pinellas funds were being stretched thin.

    By EDIE GROSS and LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2001


    A day after discovering they would have to cut $162-million from Penny for Pinellas projects, several county commissioners said they were caught off-guard and that county administrators should have warned them sooner.

    But former County Administrator Fred Marquis and interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster said the number should not have shocked commissioners, who routinely increased the size of Penny projects and approved new ones, despite a finite pot of money.

    Taken together, the statements Tuesday left an impression of a county government that struggled to communicate such basics as the amount of money available for public projects. Morever, the conflicting accounts raised questions about how much county leaders knew, or should have known, about where the money was going.

    "It was a shockeroo," said new Commissioner John Morroni, who heard the $162-million figure for the first time Monday. "When you don't balance your checkbook, you need to make good, and now we need to balance our checkbook, quick."

    Commissioners learned Monday they would need to sacrifice some projects to make up for overspending on previous Penny expenditures. County staff are preparing to cut $53-million from road projects, and they will make recommendations of where to cut the other $109-million.

    Commissioner Karen Seel said she has been asking the county staff for more than a year to provide her a list of Penny for Pinellas projects, broken down by what was budgeted for those projects versus what was spent on them.

    "I believe I was trying to get a grasp on that all along," she said Tuesday. "I'm finally obtaining that."

    She said that when she first asked the question, county staff members should have promptly provided the answer.

    But Marquis, who retired in September after 22 years as county administrator, said he provided detailed financial information to commissioners each year during budget workshops, when department heads discussed the difference between the budgeted and actual costs of Penny projects.

    Some commissioners skipped those workshops, he said. Others, he added, never seemed concerned because the high priority projects were getting done.

    "Everybody all along said, "We'll worry about the last projects when we get to the end of the Penny," said Marquis.

    When he left office, Penny spending outpaced revenues by about $130-million, Marquis said. He said Tuesday that he never shared that number with commissioners, saying he did not think it would have changed their actions over the years.

    Said Seel: "It would've mattered to me. We might have cut back on the scope of some of the projects."

    Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, who flew to Seattle on Tuesday for a conference, left behind a letter for Lancaster and fellow commissioners saying she was shocked by the needed cuts in the Penny program. She suggested that county staffers begin updating the commission quarterly on the status of Penny projects.

    "It is important that the Board of County Commissioners do all we can to assure our credibility and good faith with the people who supported the Penny for Pinellas tax," she wrote.

    By a slim margin, voters approved the first Penny for Pinellas tax in 1989. The second Penny, approved in 1997, passed overwhelmingly after voters saw what the first Penny could do -- projects like the Bayside Bridge and the Pinellas Trail.

    Before voters passed that second Penny, county officials distributed a list of projects they intended to complete with the money generated by the tax, an estimated $716-million between 2001 and 2010.

    Now, officials say, some of the listed projects won't be done, at least not until after 2010.

    Why? Some projects supported by the first Penny exceeded the budgeted cost. Then new projects were added along the way.

    Lancaster said Tuesday that the list voters saw did not represent a promise on the county's part, only a wish list. Once commissioners started adding to some projects, others faced cuts, she said.

    "There are some very natural costs that come with opportunities," she said. "I don't think it's a breach of trust."

    Seel and Todd indicated that they knew Penny projects might have to be changed down the road. But no one had ever summed up the magnitude of the problem before, they said.

    Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said he was not bothered by the fact that some projects will be delayed beyond 2010.

    "That was one of the reasons we prioritized," Harris said. "We knew that when we got down the list, some might not get done. I think the voters understood that."

    Commissioner Susan Latvala agreed.

    "I think the average person would interpret that to mean, "best-case scenario, this is the max that's going to be done,' " Latvala said. "If a hurricane hits, all bets are off -- our money will be used for hurricane repairs."

    There was one point everyone seemed to agree on: From now on, commissioners will plan Penny projects differently.

    "We've definitely learned some lessons," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "Make sure the public is informed where we are on the Penny on an annual basis and know what the projections are. Like any business would do, we need an annual profit and loss statement."

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