GULFPORT — Residents are about to learn that the city can only tighten its belt so much before it has to change the ways it gets fastened.
After a two-hour emotional meeting Tuesday, the City Council appears poised to make a few unpopular decisions to avoid tapping the city's reserves to pay bills. They include:
• Raise the property tax rate to 4 mills, or $4 for every $1,000 of appraised value.
• Raise the water/sewer rates 10 or 20 percent.
• Outsource the police dispatchers (four full-time employees and one part-timer).
• Outsource the parks department mowing staff of two.
One by one, residents — some in tears — pleaded with the council not to cut services. Most were opposed to outsourcing the police dispatch unit to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, a move estimated to save $200,000 a year.
Council members patiently listened to all their arguments.
"A life is worth more than $200,000," Roz Barbieri said. "Where does it stop? Do you let the police officers go next?"
"We want control over our own quality of life," said Mary Karbowski, a member of the Zone 1 Crime Watch group.
Jeri Reed said she saw kids peering into an abandoned house across the street. She didn't know the address but police got there quickly after she called.
"We don't need the Sheriff's Department taking an hour to figure out where you're at," she said.
"I want to pay more taxes," Ernie Stone said. "I want to keep the services I enjoy and expect from my tax dollars. The five dedicated (dispatch) employees are not items on a budget."
"We can't have a city if we don't have a police department, weed-pullers and dispatchers," Jim Vice said. "Your job is to come up with a solution to be able to afford it."
Parks department employee Linda Skillen and dispatcher Lakeisha Isaac made their pleas through tears.
"I love Gulfport and I love my co-workers," Skillen said.
Isaac said: "I ask that you really think about the people and not just the numbers.
Then Pam Stone weighed in: "Find someplace else to cut. Give up your salaries. Don't give up on our dispatch."
One resident got to the heart of the matter. "The great strength of the Gulfport dispatch is the nonemergency number you can call that creates a response immediately," Lee Stapella said.
Emergency 911 calls are already being routed to the county. But the local nonemergency number is routed to the city.
"If there is a crime or emergency in progress, call 911," police Chief Robert Vincent said.
Residents also spoke in support of park workers.
Lori Rosso pleaded to keep the parks department intact. The city has said displaced parks workers would be placed in the sanitation department.
Meanwhile, council members David Hastings, Jennifer Salmon and Barbara Banno remained firm with the decision to make cuts and increase taxes.
Mayor Mike Yakes seemed willing to compromise. Sam Henderson pleaded with his colleagues to delay the cuts and use the reserves — about $4.6 million.
"If we're waiting for an emergency and we call a Category 4 (hurricane) an emergency, we're not going to have the money to make the repairs anyway," Henderson said.
But Hastings, a certified public accountant, said: "Since 2003, the city has collected less than it has spent. We've been dipping into the reserves since 2003. We've got to make drastic reductions this year or you're really going to hate us next year."
Salmon and Banno agreed with that sentiment.
The amended budget — cuts and tax-rate increase included — is scheduled for a first reading Sept. 8 and a second reading Sept. 21.