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2 new leaders to take it slow

With property tax revenue high back in 2006, the Pinellas County Commission announced a commitment to spend money on neglected areas like housing, health care and homelessness.

Tuesday, two new faces join the seven-member commission, plus a new county administrator. It's the biggest personnel change at the top of county government in nearly a decade.

The new commissioners have reputations as fiscal and social conservatives. And on the campaign trail during a bleak economy, they vowed aggressive scrutiny of county spending.

Though Neil Brickfield, a one-time Safety Harbor city commissioner, and former School Board member Nancy Bostock say they have no intention of calling immediately for cuts, they promise to fulfill their campaign pledges.

Sitting commissioners are eager to work with their new colleagues but warn that the downturn has already forced unwelcome budget reductions and say there's a deeply held commitment to continue social welfare spending.

"I'm sure there will be some philosophical debates," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, "but the working relationships should be good."

Bostock and Brickfield are Republicans. Their election doesn't alter the partisan split on the commission (five Republicans and two Democrats).

After much planning and citizen input, the commission in 2006 pledged millions in new spending on health care for the poor, affordable housing and homeless programs.

Those pledges were realized in the 2007 budget. Though falling tax revenue has led the county's general fund budget to dip 8.3 percent to $586.2-million from 2007 to the current fiscal year, spending on affordable housing and homelessness has been largely untouched.

Deep reductions have taken place, however, in indigent health care.

Bostock, 40, said she believes in spending on social programs, but a host of priorities will have to be weighed during lean times, and some valuable initiatives may have to be re-examined.

Bostock said she has the advantage of having recently been in close contact with the public while campaigning. People are looking for the commission to make tough choices and alleviate the tax burden, she said.

And their priorities may have shifted from when the county committed to social service initiatives two years ago.

"The bottom line is our budgets now in Pinellas County are tight," Bostock said.

Brickfield, 45, said he supports the county's current social service programs. The budget picture is likely to worsen, however, and all areas of spending will need to be evaluated, he said.

"We as a community are going to have to look at what we are mandated to do, what we need to do and what we want to do, because there is not going to be enough money to do all of it," Brickfield said.

County Commissioner Susan Latvala looks forward to input from her new colleagues. While she agreed the revenue crunch will force more tough choices, she said she'll fight to protect social services spending.

Latvala said she shares the new commissioners' commitment to fiscal prudence, but cautioned that what's said on the stump takes on a new light when you're faced with actually having to slash programs.

"Reality is very different than campaign slogans and promises," Latvala said. "You don't know until you get there."

Outgoing commission Chairman Bob Stewart, the board's veteran member, predicted the newcomers will put their stamp on county policy, but noted that two votes can't get anything done.

He expects the revenue climate may actually have an upside for the new commission.

"This group is going to have to bond together more quickly than normal simply because of the issue of the day," Stewart said, "and that's the economy."

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or 445-4166.

2 new leaders to take it slow 11/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 3:37pm]
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