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    Thousands here, there start to add up

    Largo doesn't want its constant trickle of over budget spending to turn into a tidal wave of obligations.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    LARGO -- First, it was a new roof for the Largo Library.

    Cost: $300,000.

    Next came a request to fix a reclaimed water pump storage tank.

    The price: $67,000.

    But when City Clerk Diane Bruner asked city commissioners last month for the smaller amount of $3,700 to upgrade the micrographics technician position to deputy city clerk, one city commissioner said he would not support the request.

    "I am noticing a trend that is disturbing to me," said Commissioner Marty Shelby.

    Since city commissioners approved this year's $73.5-million budget in September, $498,700 has been tacked onto the city's budget through amendments. Another $66,200 is scheduled for final approval later this month.

    The additional items introduced by various city departments since budget approval have Shelby and several other commissioners concerned. Some commissioners say Pinellas County's recent spending woes have reawakened their own awareness of how city funds are spent. One commissioner suggested she may vote against all future budget amendments unless there is an overwhelming need for the money.

    "Can it wait another year? I think it can," said Commissioner Harriet Crozier.

    City staff members say that because the process of shaping a budget usually begins several months before it is approved, it can be difficult to foresee what may be needed a year later.

    "You are beginning to plan now for a spending period seven to 19 months from now, so things change," Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said.

    After some discussion at a subsequent commission meeting, commissioners voted against Bruner's request.

    Department directors are usually asked in late February or early March to send their wish lists to the city manager. The requests are reviewed and sent to the city's Finance Advisory Board. From there, the board makes its own recommendations, which are given to the commission, which approves the budget in late September.

    Largo officials take pride in being fiscally responsible. Property taxes have not increased in nine years. At a work session last week, auditors praised the city on how it handles its money and said Largo is on solid financial footing.

    Still, some commissioners are worried.

    Commissioners speak with the voice of doom at the mere thought of raising property taxes, knowing what it could mean to them at election time.

    "We need to start cutting back," said Mayor Bob Jackson, pointing to the auditor's report, which shows future city spending rising and revenue dropping slightly. "We don't want to get to the point of raising the millage rate."

    Jackson cast the lone vote against the Fire Department's request for $38,000 to pay for a multipurpose vehicle, saying the department went over budget last fiscal year. A final vote on the matter is scheduled for March 13.

    Other budget amendments have included $14,000 for a compact pickup truck for the Public Works Department, $56,000 to rebuild the railroad crossing at Rosery Road and $61,700 for two additional summer camp programs.

    Separately, they may seem insignificant, considering the size of Largo's total budget. But combined, the additional spending is troublesome, commissioners say.

    "The costs we add will have an impact down the road," Shelby said during last month's discussion.

    Generally, the additional money is needed to pay for personnel costs, said Schubert. Another factor, Schubert said, has been higher construction costs. With widespread talk of a nationwide economic slowdown, Schubert said such costs should drop.

    "We should have fewer projects going over budget, so it should reduce the number of budget amendments," he said.

    Crozier said she has been frustrated with budget amendments for years. In the first three months after the 1999 budget was approved, Crozier groused that an additional $600,000 was spent on various projects.

    Crozier admitted that she and her fellow commissioners have been too willing to accommodate department directors.

    "We have been very lenient with them, so maybe that is why they're coming more often," she said.

    She suggested giving department heads more time to add items before the budget is approved. But Schubert noted that they already have that opportunity when the budget is formally discussed by commissioners in September.

    Schubert said it is difficult to come up with ideas to curb budget amendments because it is almost impossible to envision what will arise that would require additional spending.

    "You need to respond to unanticipated events," he said. "Budgeting is a continuous process."

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