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Clearwater budget plan trims police, fire rescue and more for $5 million savings

CLEARWATER — There's good news and bad news in City Manager Bill Horne's proposed budget for Clearwater for the next fiscal year.

The good news: There's no tax increase, and no libraries or recreation centers will close.

The bad news: The police and fire departments, which had been relatively untouched by Clearwater's budget woes until now, will face steeper cuts than they have in previous years. Also, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. community center in North Greenwood might close.

To balance the budget, Horne proposes about $5 million in cuts, eliminating more than 60 city jobs. The cuts are spread throughout the city's operations. To cite just one example, pet owners will be expected to bring their own plastic bags for cleanup at Clearwater's dog parks.

Plummeting property values are forcing the city to cut costs and trim jobs for the third year in a row.

Taxable values in Clearwater dropped more than 10 percent in the past year — a loss of nearly $1 billion, Horne said. That's nearly a 40 percent decline from peak property values three years ago.

The City Council will discuss the budget and ask for the public's comments several times over this summer. Council members made it clear this spring that they didn't want a tax hike.

"I'm happy there's not a millage increase," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "I think it's going to relieve a lot of people that there aren't some of the closures that they were worried about.

"We may tweak one or two things here or there, but there's a very good foundation for us to go forward with in our budget discussions."

Here's a breakdown of the proposed budget.

Libraries: None of Clearwater's five library branches will close. Officials decided that shuttering them wouldn't save enough money to be worth it.

Police: Chief Tony Holloway agreed to cut $2 million in spending and about 27 jobs, including evidence technicians, aides and communications operators.

The positions of seven officers and sergeants will be eliminated through attrition. None will be laid off. Instead, the city will dip into reserves to keep paying them next year until enough sworn officers leave.

"It would be so minor you wouldn't even notice," Holloway recently told the council about the officer cuts.

Fire: Horne and fire Chief Jamie Geer propose eliminating a rescue unit at Station 50 in Countryside. Pinellas County stopped funding the unit last year because it answers fewer emergency calls than other units.

A rescue unit has two paramedics and can transport patients. But in Countryside, a paramedic would begin riding on a fire engine, turning it into an advanced life support unit. That medic would treat and stabilize patients until a Sunstar ambulance took them to a hospital.

"You really shouldn't see much of a difference in service delivery or time of arrival," Geer said. "You'll just have three people come to your home on a fire truck instead of two people on a rescue unit."

The jobs of four firefighters and three paramedics would be eliminated through attrition.

MLK Center: Horne proposes that the city stop subsidizing and doing maintenance on this aging community center on Douglas Avenue. Various family and children's programs there are run by Pinellas Core Management Services, which manages small nonprofits for the county's Juvenile Welfare Board.

"We do not have plans to assume responsibility for that building because of the repairs required," said the juvenile board's executive director, Gay Lancaster. Instead, the group will talk to the city about moving its programs into the North Greenwood Recreation Center.

Parks and recreation: This department, which has been hit hard by cuts in the last couple of years, is cutting $1 million in spending and eight jobs, mostly in parks beautification. It will be looking for private groups to maintain ballfields, including Belmont, Marymont and U.S. 19. But the Clearwater Beach pool will stay open.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

If you go

Budget meetings

All are at City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.

July 13, 1:30 p.m.: Special budget meeting. Public comment allowed.

July 15, 6 p.m.: City Council meeting. Members will set preliminary millage rate to be included in TRIM notices.

Aug. 30, 6 p.m.: Public meeting on budget.

Sept. 9 and 23, 6 p.m.: Formal public hearings.

Clearwater budget plan trims police, fire rescue and more for $5 million savings 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 9:17pm]

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