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Clearwater City Council gives initial approval for $109M budget

CLEARWATER — The City Council on Wednesday gave tentative but unanimous approval for next year's budget, ignoring pleas from city employees fed up with frozen pay.

The $109 million general fund budget, which begins next month, cuts 28 jobs, including fire lieutenants, police dispatchers and parks employees.

Fueled by the unceasing slide of home prices, the city has slashed more than 275 jobs in the last five years. Most wages have stayed stagnant for four years in a row.

That has been crippling to employee morale, said Charles McAbee, a public utilities technician who has not seen his pay increase since he was hired in 2002.

"The employees are suffering," Matthew McCombs, a city fleet mechanic since 2003, told the council. "I'm seriously considering leaving Clearwater. I've gotten to the point where I've had enough."

Five city employees who spoke Wednesday said the city's work force needed a boost to stay competitive, with some suggesting the city raise property tax rates or dip into reserves.

The city's tax rate has since 2009 stayed at 5.155 mills, or $5.15 for every $1,000 of taxable property value. Council members said they worried that raising the rate would add an extra burden on city homeowners.

The city's reserve fund stands at about $19 million, more than double what is required by city policy. The newest budget would add another $300,000. But city leaders have long cautioned against using the "rainy day" fund for recurring costs.

Council members said they know it has been tough for employees lacking raises or job security, but added they had little choice in the face of a sinking budget. They are expected to approve the budget during a final public hearing Sept. 29.

"Not one of us up here, not one of you out there, has a magic wand to give everybody everything that he wants," Vice Mayor George Cretekos said. "The government operates as a balancing act."

Mayor Frank Hibbard said employees could still find solace in their pensions, which he called a strong investment.

"That's something I know doesn't put food on the table this week, and it doesn't pay the electric bill," Hibbard said. "But it should help you sleep a little better. We're all in this together, folks."

Not everyone was so supportive. Joe Paige, a conservative gadfly and failed City Council candidate, scoffed at the public employees' talk of tax increases while private employers are still handing out pink slips.

"While everybody in the economy is on their knees," Paige said, "they're asking for more, always more."

One employee, though, said it wasn't a matter of demanding more money. Some people just wanted their services to stay the same.

"I like my garbage picked up, and my water, and my recreation centers. I don't want these things cut anymore," said Charlene Auclair, a city accounting technician.

"If you raise my taxes just a little bit every year," she said, "I'm okay with that."

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

Clearwater City Council gives initial approval for $109M budget 09/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 8:46am]
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