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County seeks to strip Pinellas planning agency's budget

CLEARWATER — In another possible blow to growth management, County Administrator Bob LaSala has pressed to strip tax funding from the Pinellas Planning Council.

The state-mandated land-use advisory board would see its budget slashed by 40 percent next year and its sole funding source — property taxes — would be eliminated in 2011, if the County Commission backs LaSala's proposal.

"They're basically gutting the PPC," said Beverley Billiris, the council's chairwoman and mayor of Tarpon Springs.

LaSala sees it from a different perspective. As the county faces an $85 million shortfall next year, the planning council has cash to burn.

The agency, which had a $1.5 ­million budget for 2008-09, also began the year with nearly $1 million in reserves, an unusually big cushion. The nine-employee council should face the same scrutiny and cuts as other county departments, LaSala said.

The council is made up of city, county and school officials. It reviews development projects and growth policies in the county, a role required in state law and a 1988 county referendum. The law gives the agency the job of making growth plans consistent, and it levies its own tax rate. But the commission gets to approve its budget.

However, the county has its own planning department. The County Commission has final say on development decisions — sometimes putting the two bodies at odds.

LaSala and council Executive Director David Healey have traded proposals to reduce the agency's budget after LaSala delivered the unexpected news Friday. LaSala said he wants more of the council's reserves to fund its operations instead of property taxes, and do the "minimum, mandatory service."

But LaSala acknowledges that the council's property tax levy can't be used for other departments or county expenses. The council is charging one-tenth of the tax rate allowed by law.

Healey agreed, however, that the reserve money could be spent. The agency has used its extra money to stave off layoffs and other spending cuts this year, Healey said.

After meeting with LaSala, Healey and other agency officials offered to trim spending by an additional $400,000 next year by reducing the tax rate. That would mean cutting three of nine jobs.

This wouldn't be first place growth management faced downsizing.

Some Hillsborough County officials have suggested relaxing regulations on development. Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature rewrote the state's growth management law — a bill some Pinellas officials opposed — to allow developers in the most urban counties to build housing without expanding roads and by allowing counties and cities to exempt new urban areas from requirements to build roads.

"That is part of the bigger picture at a time when local government planning will have to rise to the occasion," Healey said.

LaSala's proposal also arrived six weeks after Healey and the council broke with the county's plans to build utility systems in land at the Brooker Creek Preserve. The commission approved the plan by a 6-1 vote, despite Healey taking the lectern to question its rationale.

"The Brooker Creek incident would not have gotten as much scrutiny as it did if it had not gone through the PPC," Billiris said.

LaSala insisted Wednesday that politics had nothing to do with his plan. He suggested a compromise was possible. It might have to be.

County Commissioners Ken Welch and John Morroni, a council member, said cuts were needed but they didn't expect to eliminate all tax funding. Ending the tax support, Morroni said, could be a bargaining point by LaSala.

The agency has been in others' sights, though.

Commissioner Susan Latvala — who is running against Billiris in the 2010 election — called the agency "redundant" five years ago. She disagreed with its assessment on utilities in the preserve, too. Latvala did not return messages seeking comment.

But some residents of unincorporated Pinellas who fear annexation complain the agency fails to represent their interests, too.

Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association, called the agency a "mayor's club" boosting cities' interests. Though lauding Healey, he questioned the board's value, too.

"I don't know why they do what they do. You go there, and it just puts another layer of government in," Neri said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

County seeks to strip Pinellas planning agency's budget 06/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 12:22am]
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