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    County increases oversight of Penny

    Progress reports twice a year and cost updates on each project should help the commission keep track of Penny for Pinellas spending.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Comprehensive updates and semiannual reviews are two safeguards county commissioners will now use to stay on top of future Penny for Pinellas spending.

    The changes follow this year's discovery that the commissioners overspent the first 10 years of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax by $123-million and would need to cut some projects.

    At the time, some commissioners said they were caught off guard, although the board for years had added new projects and expanded others despite a finite amount of Penny money.

    Under a plan outlined Monday, commissioners and the public should be able to keep track of projects easily, county officials said.

    Twice a year, commissioners will receive progress reports on overall Penny spending. And with each project, the county staff will present commissioners with comprehensive cost updates at several stages in the planning and construction. The updates will allow the commissioners to review any changes in the project and decide whether to continue funding it. That didn't always happen in the past.

    "We get the whole picture and actual costs," said County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "Everything is completely budgeted."

    Also, starting this year, commissioners will begin budgeting Penny projects in three-year increments within the Penny's overall 10-year spending plan. At the end of each fiscal year, the seven-member board will review what projects were completed in that three-year window and then add a new year to their plans.

    The process will be flexible to allow commissioners to bump some other projects to the next three-year cycle if a new project arises.

    There are several benefits to reviewing projects in three-year increments, county budget director Mark Woodard said. For one, most projects take three years to complete. Also, the dollar figures will be more realistic than cost estimates assigned to a project that won't happen for many years.

    And it makes the entire Penny planning process more manageable, he said. The county has nearly 300 different projects on the 10-year Penny list.

    The updates and reviews also will be posted on the county's Web site, www.co.pinellas.fl.us. Woodard said he hoped to have the first Penny update posted to the site by the end of this week.

    Commissioners praised the county staff's effort to refine the planning process and make information available to the public.

    "It's very easy to understand, and hopefully people will understand a little better where their money is going," Commissioner John Morroni said.

    Commissioner Karen Seel said she was pleased to see checks and balances built into the planning process.

    "There will be several points where we will receive updates, financial information and operation and maintenance costs," Seel said. "I was really looking for that kind of follow through and orientation to detail."

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