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As city grows, so do its salaries

Continuing a trend, commissioners are expected to approve a budget Tuesday that includes several new positions and raises.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


LARGO -- When city commissioners pass the 2000-2001 budget on Tuesday -- and barring some cataclysmic act of nature, they will -- their ayes will usher in more than new drainage work, rec programs and police cars.

Tucked in nearly $80-million of expenses is about $36.4-million in employee wages and benefits. That's a 7.5 percent jump in personnel costs, or a jump of $2.5-million, from the 1999-2000 budget.

The increase marks the second consecutive year for hefty increases in worker spending.

During the 1999-2000 fiscal year, which ends this month, Largo's wages increased 8.1 percent, largely because of health care costs and raises for police officers who were said to be underpaid.

This year, firefighters and some professionals in City Hall will see higher digits on their paychecks.

"It shows that the city continues to grow and expand and prosper," Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said of the city's increased personnel costs. "It also shows that we have concern for our employees, and we need to compensate them fairly."

Take City Clerk Diane Bruner, for one. She makes about $39,000, about $34,000 less than Clearwater's city clerk and $22,000 less than Pinellas Park's clerk.

Bruner is one of several Largo managers and professional technical workers who will get a raise this coming year after a salary survey determined they were underpaid. The percentage of their raises vary. Bruner said she is expecting a raise of about 10.5 percent, or $4,140.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Bruner, who has worked for the city seven years.

A year ago, Bruner bought a home in Largo and said she will use the extra money toward renovations.

If commissioners formally approve the budget Tuesday, pay raises will kick in sometime in October.

The raises won't be limited to workers in City Hall. Largo also agreed this year to boost salaries for the city's 114 firefighters, lieutenants, paramedics and emergency medical technicians by an average of about 28 percent over the next three years. Officials backed the raises because Largo firefighters were among the lowest paid in Pinellas County.

And a year ago, police officers and sergeants got a flat $3,500 pay raise. During the coming years, their salaries will be significantly adjusted.

The raises have been integral to stability in the city's work force, Schubert said.

"We would not want to continue annual increases at that level, but these increases were necessary primarily because we had a significant number of employees in the city that were not paid appropriately," Schubert said.

It's clear overall spending on employees will continue to rise.

Aside from pay adjustments and health care, city commissioners have added new positions to the staff within the past year and for the upcoming budget year, deeming the expenses necessary for upscaled services in a city trying to remake itself.

The Largo Cultural Center is going through a restructuring that has added three new workers in a two-year span, including 1.5 positions in the 1999-2000 year and 1.5 in the upcoming fiscal year, Schubert said.

A study showed overflow and maintenance problems with some private sewage lift stations and collection systems -- leading to three new staffers in the environmental services department.

Because of annexation, Largo has more streets to maintain and more drainage issues. Ergo, two more positions for the public works department.

Additionally, city commissioners decided to fund a public information officer for the Police Department. They also added two domestic violence intervention specialist positions in the 2000-2001 budget, even though an $84,000 federal grant that funded the program will expire in December and leave much of salary costs up to the city.

And Largo is bound to hire more workers next year to accommodate the needs of areas newly annexed, Schubert said. The city will be studying throughout this fiscal year just how many people must be hired and in what departments, he said.

Despite the increases, Largo taxpayers won't see an increased property tax rate. Property values are up. New businesses are moving to town. And the city is expanding its boundaries through annexation. All of that means more money flowing into Largo's coffers.

Although the tax rate won't increase, people whose home values rise will pay more money. Plus, the city expects to get additional income from franchise fees, utility taxes and licenses and permits than in years past.

For instance, Largo expects to bring in $7.2-million in property taxes during the 2000-2001 fiscal year, about $680,000 more than it did in 1999-2000.

The city has steadily increased its work force in recent years. Starting in October, Largo's payroll will have the equivalent of 838 full-time employees. In the 1999-2000 year, that number was 830, and two years ago it was 805.

At least one city official was concerned about the city continually adding to its work force. Although Largo is in healthy shape financially, projecting a reserve account of more than $9-million, Mayor Bob Jackson cautioned that officials must stay watchful of spending. The city may have to dip into its reserve pot to offset expenses this year.

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