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Budget decisions take a toll on community's services

Children with emotional problems. County staffers cut from the payroll. Cat trappers. Even dogs with heartworm disease. Theirs are the faces behind $566 million in proposed cuts from Hillsborough County's 2011-2012 budget. Some may suffer greatly because of eliminated services, while others notice only irritating inconveniences. Those in the thick of the decisionmaking, however, have been grappling with the challenge of making the numbers work these past couple of years. Cutting half a billion dollars in a stubbornly anemic economy has not been easy.

Take, for instance, the Hillsborough County children's services division where director Don Dixon cut 16 positions of staffers who deal directly with children, plus four administrative positions. The cuts reduced by about 40 percent the agency's ability to serve children in its residential facility in North Tampa's Lake Magdalene area, he said.

The big cuts came in the child welfare program, where some children who suffered emotional problems were sent to the residential center by court order.

"They'll just have to go elsewhere,'' Dixon said.

Animal Services had to sacrifice the bulk of its public education efforts, one strategy that Dennis McCullough, director of operations, said helped cut the impounded animal population from more than 32,000 about eight years ago to an expected 21,500 next year.

"The biggest impact we've had. (The cuts) reduced our ability to be proactive,'' said McCullough. "Now we're, like, reactive. I feel like every day we're running uphill.''

Talking to schoolchildren and other groups about humane treatment of animals, adoption and avoiding dog bites had been one part of a three-pronged strategy, he said. It combined with a strong spay and neuter program and aggressive enforcement of animal cruelty and neglect cases, he said.

The department has had to cut other services, too. Officers no longer trap feral cats; residents with a cat problem now have to trap the cats themselves or call a commercial or volunteer trapper.

And the department doesn't have money to treat dogs afflicted with heartworm disease, so volunteers run bake sales and other events to raise money to buy the medicine. They also keep the dogs at their homes while the animals recuperate.

The county code enforcement department made its most painful cuts during the last two years. Planners predicted the loss of 11 positions would result in removing 9,000 fewer illegal signs and a 6 percent drop in property inspections. But here, too, volunteers have helped fill the gaps in service, taking up much of the slack in removing signs.

The department made a lot of smaller changes that added up, such as cutting back on supplies and recycling file folders, so it didn't suffer as much as other departments this year, Barge said.

Many of the jobs that were lost were cut through attrition; as employees moved on, the positions were eliminated. That was a relief to Barge.

"Cutting people is always the toughest for everybody.''

Still, not all decisions led to reduced services or delayed projects, leaving some people to question county officials' choices.

Consider Tampa resident Neil Cosentino, who is at the forefront of the effort to save Friendship Trail Bridge for jogging, biking and hiking. Like other bridge supporters, he believes the county should save the $2.2 million set aside to demolish it and use that money for some of the services being cut. Cosentino says he doubts the bridge is as dangerous as consulting engineers have said.

But county spokesman Steve Valdez insists that the bridge is a safety hazard that could collapse at anytime under its own weight.

Besides, Valdez said, Pinellas County already has set aside its $2.2 million share of the cost. So the decision has been made: the bridge dismantling is expected to begin in October.

Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or pmorgan@sptimes.com.

Budget decisions take a toll on community's services 08/27/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 27, 2011 4:31am]
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