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    County staff to suggest new cuts for budget

    At a hearing tonight, commissioners will accept suggestions that would shrink the proposed tax rate increase of 4.8 percent to 3.4 percent.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 21, 2001


    Pinellas County commissioners will consider whittling their proposed tax rate increase at a meeting tonight.

    Staff members will suggest $3.6-million in new cuts to the county government's proposed $1.5-billion budget. That would mean a property-tax rate increase of 3.4 percent instead of the 4.8 percent commissioners set last month as the tentative increase.

    The changes would mean increasing the county's reserve fund less and pushing some of the cost of new voting machines into the fiscal 2003 budget, county budget director Mark Woodard said Monday.

    The commission will hold its first public hearing on the budget at 6:30 p.m. today at the Pinellas County Courthouse in downtown Clearwater.

    The final budget will be passed Aug. 28.

    Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said Monday that he agrees with the staff's suggested cuts but that the board will keep looking for others.

    "We're going to keep working," Harris said.

    "Everything seems to point to hard times with the economy. We just need to be in synch with what our citizens are going through."

    Harris opposes any increase to next year's tax rate.

    He and commissioners Bob Stewart and John Morroni voted against adopting the tentative budget, but Stewart and Morroni said they might accept a smaller increase.

    Harris remains convinced that the county can cut spending without axing needed services.

    "There are always ways . . . that you're not draconian, but you save money," he said.

    The staff's latest proposal would increase taxes $15.07 for the average Pinellas homeowner, whose house has an assessed value of $90,540. The 4.8 percent rate increase would raise taxes $21.63 for the same homeowner.

    The biggest budgetary change would result in the county asking whatever company supplies the voting machines to accept partial payment after October 2002, when the county's 2003 fiscal year begins, if the total purchase costs more than $12-million.

    The board has set aside $15-million to buy voting machines. Woodard said asking a vendor to defer accepting payment without receiving extra interest is "not unheard of."

    Has a county vendor ever done that before?

    "Not that I'm aware of," Woodard said. "On the other hand, we haven't purchased a voting system for the last 30 years."

    The new plan also calls for the county to increase its reserve fund by $2.9-million instead of $3.9-million. The new budget also would add a $390,000 state grant to the elections office.

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