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    Largo staff offers cuts, commission says 'whoa'

    On order to cut 7 percent from next year's budget, city staff sent programs to cut to the commissioners. But some suggestions were met with resistance.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    LARGO -- There they sat, about 20 of them, hoping that maybe, just maybe, city commissioners would not kill the $20,000 purchase of a bus to ferry them and other senior citizens to the beach, parks, sporting events and other activities.

    Hoping to avoid a property tax hike in two years, the city's staff looked into ways to cut costs. There was the order by City Manager Steven Stanton to department heads to cut 7 percent from next year's budget. Then, there was Stanton's call for a hiring freeze in 10 vacant positions.

    The proposed funding cut for the bus was the latest attempt by the staff to save money. But with those seniors in the room, commissioners quickly and unanimously voted to keep the money for the bus.

    Mayor Bob Jackson thought the vote was telling.

    "I think it's an indication that the commission is not going to cut services, even if it comes to a tax increase," Jackson said Wednesday. "I don't think voting for a tax increase is the kiss of death" for politicians.

    The bus was one of two items the staff proposed to cut in order to save money. The other was the Heart of Largo Music and Food Festival, a 4-year-old event that features up-and-coming country music stars. It is an increasingly popular event, which brings 6,000 to 8,000 to Largo, but in the grand scheme of things, the staff thought the festival was expendable.

    Commissioners did not.

    "I think it is becoming a signature event," said Commissioner Pat Burke. "We have to be real careful of what we're taking away. This is a gift back to the community. You can't tell me we're going to cut these events because we're going to raise taxes. Tax me."

    Jackson stressed that the votes are not made hastily, calling the attempt to weigh the importance of a service against the need to save money a "dilemma."

    Case in point was Commissioner Marty Shelby's vote on the festival.

    Although he likes the event, Shelby, who has been adamant in his opposition to a property tax increase, voted in favor of the staff's recommendation to end the festival.

    "It's a nice event but . . . it has not met our expectations," he said.

    Stanton first mentioned the possibility of a tax hike in March after discovering that franchise fees and utility taxes have not generated as much revenue as city officials initially thought.

    For the last two months, city officials have spent much of their time reviewing what projects should be kept and which ones could be cut. Some staff meetings on the issue have become testy. Stanton recalled how one department director stormed out of his office over a dispute about budget spending.

    City staff members said they did not want to recommend against buying the bus, but they considered it an expansion of a service that could be done in other ways for less money. The reaction was one of outrage.

    Stanton said he got several telephone calls at home last weekend, criticizing the recommendation. One caller said the city's recreation and parks director, Cathy Santa, should be fired.

    "It wasn't a desire to get anyone upset," Stanton said. "It was a way for us to say, here's the cost, here are the options."

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