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Clearwater budget deepens the cutting

CLEARWATER — The city's budget freefall began in the dawn of the housing crisis and will continue into next year, whittling deeper into public departments already a shadow of their former size.

Next year's budget, which begins next month, will cut more than two dozen jobs, including firefighters and police dispatchers, and will outsource work like maintenance and landscaping as a way to cut costs.

The first public hearing for the preliminary budget is set for tonight at City Hall. The City Council is expected to approve the budget at a final hearing scheduled for Sept. 29.

There is some consolation that it could have been worse. Early projections doubled the true loss of property values, and the gravest of budget cuts — laying off police officers, shuttering a fire rescue squad, closing a library — were taken off the table.

But the continued sinking of property tax revenue, the biggest source of city funding, remains a weak spot with no end in sight. The city's total property values have dropped by a third in the last five years to $7.6 billion.

Next year's property tax rate will stay at 5.155 mills: just over $5.15 in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. That the rate has not increased since 2009 is good for homeowners but bad for the operating budget, which lost about $2 million.

The $109 million operating budget trims the equivalent of 28 full-time jobs, bringing the work force to about 1,700 employees. Most whose jobs were cut moved to other city positions, said Human Resources Director Joe Roseto. Others retired, left or were laid off.

For all the red ink, next year's budget will see some slight improvements. The North Greenwood branch library was budgeted $35,000 more to pay for longer hours. Police will hire two school crossing guards to meet demand.

The $45 million capital improvement budget, down 15 percent from last year, will mostly pay for utility upgrades, like an arsenic-removal system at a water treatment plant.

The Penny for Pinellas fund, paid by the 1-cent county sales tax, will pay $6.4 million toward the construction of a new fire station on Court Street, fire engines, a beach seawall, traffic calming projects and the renovation of the Countryside Library.

Over the last five years, operating funds have dropped by a tenth. The city has shed 200 jobs.

And almost every department, from finance and planning to libraries and parks, has been asked to work with less. Police and fire crews faced some of the shallowest cuts; economic development and public works, some of the deepest.

It's hard to tell, city leaders said, whether that slide will continue into the year after.

"If it doesn't get any worse, it may not be as difficult," said City Manager Bill Horne. "We don't really know for sure."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater budget deepens the cutting 09/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2011 8:15pm]
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