CLEARWATER — Make do with fewer cops. Close the North Greenwood Library and the Morningside Recreation Center too. Eliminate one of the rescue units in Countryside.
Oh, and raise the tax rate a bit anyway, just to balance the budget. If not, then be prepared to make even deeper cuts.
This is the reality that the City Council is looking at. These are the choices council members began debating Thursday when City Manager Bill Horne unveiled his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The problem is that Clearwater's property values have plummeted by 13 percent in a year. That and the lousy economy mean the city will bring in less in taxes, leading to significant cuts in government services.
Horne's budget eliminates 86 city jobs, including nine police officers. It consolidates several departments and makes widespread cuts throughout the city's operations. It would close a library and a recreation center. The city's general fund, which accounts for most nuts-and-bolts spending, would drop from $121 million to $115 million.
Even after $6 million in cuts, Horne recommends raising the tax rate to balance the budget. He suggests a tax rate of 5.15 mills, which is 9 percent higher than the current rate of 4.72 mills. But it's 8 percent lower than the "rollback rate" of 5.59 mills — the tax rate that would be needed to raise the same amount of revenue as the current year.
Horne argues that, under his plan, Clearwater homeowners would still be paying less money overall than they did this year. But the City Council is having heartburn over the prospect of raising tax rates.
Council members had a vigorous debate on the subject Thursday. They'll vote on a tentative millage rate at their meeting next Thursday night.
Carlen Petersen and George Cretekos appear to be inclined to follow Horne's recommendation. Petersen said that, under Horne's proposed tax rate, the owners of a $250,000 house with a homestead exemption would pay $87 more next year, or about $7 a month. Petersen wants to avoid closing more facilities.
"It's very easy to close things; it's hard to open them," she said. "My concern is if we destroy the heart and soul of the city, we're not going to get it back."
Mayor Frank Hibbard and Paul Gibson are leaning toward keeping the tax rate the same.
"We have to consider that not everyone has the money to spend on increased taxes. I know households where a hundred bucks is a lot of money," Gibson said.
The council also discussed some of the most controversial parts of Horne's budget.
Police Department: The police force accounts for nearly a third of the city's budget. After some earlier prodding from Horne and the council, police Chief Sid Klein agreed to cut nine positions — a deputy chief, two sergeants and six officers — all through attrition. Clearwater has nearly 250 sworn officers. Community policing teams would stay. "I'm confident we can continue to provide the same level of safety in this community," Klein said.
Morningside Recreation Center: The aging building would be torn down and replaced with a park. The swimming pool and tennis courts would stay. A new center could be built someday, but not anytime soon. Council members lamented the fact that Clearwater's southeastern quadrant wouldn't have a rec center, but most of them think the city can no longer afford to operate it.
North Greenwood Library: The city would close the small library and move part of its collection and its computers across the street to the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex. Its African-American collection would be kept intact and would move to the Main Library.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.