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Clearwater looks at grim choices to make up $5 million budget deficit

CLEARWATER — This early in the city's budget talks, the outlook is already certain: This year won't be pretty.

Potential property tax jumps. Layoffs of police officers and firefighters. Closing a library. All are ideas to respond to the city's $5 million deficit.

It's too early to say how the city will plan its $111 million general fund budget, crippled by crashed property values and growing insurance costs. But Tuesday's budget work session provided a glimpse at what the city stands to lose.

City Manager Bill Horne asked departments to estimate their budgets with a 6 percent cut.

Police Chief Tony Holloway said with that cut, he would lose at least 16 officers. Detectives and patrol officers could be on the chopping block.

A 6 percent cut in the Fire Department would mean at least three firefighters would be laid off and heavy-duty rescue Squad 51, used during crashes and water rescues, would be cut. Fire Chief Robert Weiss said that could spread out critical rescue equipment, delaying extrications of crash victims.

City property tax revenue, which provides a third of the city's general fund, has sunk about 30 percent from the 2007 peak of $53 million.

Yet city pension costs have more than tripled. Medical insurance costs have risen dramatically. And though city government carries one-tenth of its former property insurance coverage, Mayor Frank Hibbard said the city now pays 77 percent more.

To help fill the gap, budget director Tina Wilson said the city could raise property taxes. A 1 percent millage rate increase would raise $380,000.

The city has lost 92 employees in the past decade. In an e-mail to the City Council on Tuesday, Horne wrote, "There is a lot of anxiety within our staff ranks."

"You can see what kind of environment we're in," Horne said. "We really do have to challenge ourselves."

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

Clearwater looks at grim choices to make up $5 million budget deficit 04/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 7:47pm]
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