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Clearwater could lose another $1.5-million

CLEARWATER — The City Council last month approved a proposed property tax rate increase, but next week some city officials expect the rate to drop and more services to get cut.

Vice Mayor George Cretekos said the council could eliminate another $1.5-million from the city's general fund, which pays for many of Clearwater's day- to-day operations.

Mayor Frank Hibbard agreed, saying he foresees "at least $1.5-million" getting cut. He said he's received scores of e-mails from residents and talked to many who "feel strongly about the need to keep the (tax) rate where it is today."

"I think we'll probably see some additional cuts, but it's just a matter of prioritizing what they'll be," he said.

To guarantee some flexibility, the council in July signed off on City Manager Bill Horne's proposed increase from its current $4.68 per $1,000 in assessed, taxable property to $4.96.

Still, city leaders pointed out that most homesteaded properties would end up paying lower city taxes than they did this year. That's because assessed values are down, thanks to the slumping real estate market and bigger homestead exemptions created by Amendment 1.

For example, in 2007 the owner of a home with a taxable value of $150,000 (the city's average) paid $701 in city taxes.

In November, even with the higher tax rate, that homeowner would pay an estimated $683.

City officials say a home with a taxable value of $300,000 would probably have the same city taxes next year, and that homes worth more would probably pay more.

But council members said they expect to see some cuts at a public meeting at 8 a.m. Thursday in City Hall.

"I think at this point we're going to be doing more than whittling," said council member Paul Gibson. "We're going to have to reduce some services. Voters are telling us to reduce taxes."

Gibson said he is committed to eliminating funding for the Harborview Center, which would need a city subsidy of $270,000-$280,000, according to parks and recreation director Kevin Dunbar.

Cretekos reluctantly agreed: "I think we should just blow it up and get rid of it, but once we do we won't have a place in Clearwater or the mid-county to host an event."

Horne said if the property tax rate is dropped from his proposed level, then library hours and jobs would get cut first.

To keep the current tax rate, the city would have to cut another $2.7-million from next year's general fund, which stands at $123-million, the same as this year.

The current rate is bringing in $50.1-million this year. Even the increase Horne is asking for would bring in only $48.5-million. And if the council sticks with this year's rate, that number will fall to $45.8-million.

The general fund relies heavily on tax money to pay for things such as public safety and parks, and so far the city manager has cut at least $3.2-million from his proposed budget, including the equivalent of more than 11 full-time positions, police and fire department overtime and hours at aquatic centers.

Council member John Doran said he expects more cuts, but Carlen Petersen said she couldn't find any other places to trim, so the meeting "will make for an interesting discussion."

"I think all five of us are in different places, so we'll have to find some kind of compromise," she said.

>>Fast facts

About the budget

The City Council will have a special meeting at 8 a.m. Thursday at City Hall to talk about the budget. It is open to the public and the city has set aside four hours to discuss the budget. Other public hearings are at 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and Sept. 18.

Clearwater could lose another $1.5-million 08/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 4:23pm]

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