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Clearwater drops idealism, focuses on financial reality

CLEARWATER — A few years ago, when Clearwater asked its citizens to dream up their vision for the city's future, the basic question was: What do you want? What would you like to see in your ideal Clearwater?

Today the question is different. It's more like: What are you willing to do without?

Back in 2005, in a better economy, a series of public "visioning" workshops produced a 13-point list of Clearwater priorities — things like safe neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown, a quality beach environment, a variety of cultural and recreational offerings.

The city's government uses this list as its road map, its bible, its blueprint. In recent years it has built things like a showpiece main library, a sleek beachfront promenade, gleaming new rec centers, major landscaping on downtown's main street.

Times have changed. Now, with the economy going south and tax revenues falling, City Manager Bill Horne feels it's time to revisit the list. This past week, he gathered the City Council around a table in that main library for an in-depth discussion of their priorities.

"A gut check," Horne called it.

"Do you still embrace this vision?" he asked them. Because, he said, next year the city will likely have to cut services or raise taxes, or both.

What to cut?

In two hours of wide-ranging discussion, a couple of themes emerged.

First, most of the City Council appears to have little appetite for dramatic cutbacks to the city's libraries and recreation centers. Second, they remain committed to redeveloping the beach and downtown.

When future budget cuts are necessary, they're hoping to limit the damage through an incremental, wide-ranging series of cuts sprinkled throughout the city's government.

However, some city leaders fear that will no longer be possible next year.

"We're probably going to have to have fewer libraries," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.

"I think we need to think about facilities we need to close," said council member Paul Gibson. He also said the city should be prepared for tough negotiations with its employees over future wage increases.

In contrast, Carlen Petersen floated the idea of raising the property tax rate to keep amenities like libraries open.

Noting that tourists contribute $5-billion a year to Clearwater's economy, she warned against making cuts that would make the city less attractive to visitors.

John Doran said the city's core functions like police and firefighters will always be the top priority. But the city has to strike a balance between public safety and "quality of life" services like libraries and parks, especially if the budget shrinks.

He noted that 37 percent of the city's property tax revenue comes from Clearwater Beach, where property values have plummeted

"People will have to decide how far they will drive to a library or how long they will wait for emergency response," Doran said.

George Cretekos has doubts about the city government's dreams of recruiting more restaurants to downtown and fostering a Cleveland Street dining district. He thinks a cultural attraction like a rejuvenated Royalty Theatre (which the city recently bought) run by Ruth Eckerd Hall is more likely to revitalize downtown.

"Arts and culture should come first — that will make us unique," he said.

This year, Clearwater slashed more than $9-million in spending. Harder choices may be ahead.

The city manager put City Council members on notice that next year, if they don't want heavy cuts, he'll likely propose a tax hike.

"If property values are going to drop," Horne said, "we can't support anything close to the status quo without a (tax) increase."

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

Clearwater drops idealism, focuses on financial reality 12/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:32am]
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