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Clearwater may cut 28 jobs to leave property tax rate alone

CLEARWATER — The city's property tax rate will likely stay the same at the cost of 28 slashed city jobs, a proposed city budget released Thursday shows.

The $109 million general fund budget cuts firefighters, police dispatchers, arborists and maintenance workers due to the downward slide in local property values, which reduces property tax collections.

Property values fell 3.2 percent this year, less than half what the city had forecast in April. That meant early cost-cutting ideas like closing a library, laying off police officers and ending a fire rescue squad were not required in the proposed budget.

But the $12 million decrease will still bring cuts to employees in several city departments, including parks and recreation, planning and economic development. The city has cut 278 jobs since 2006, 14 percent of its peak work force.

General raises remain off the table for the fourth year in a row.

Among the hardest hit is the Fire Department, which stands to lose a deputy chief, three lieutenants and a staff assistant. The department remains caught in the crossfire of a contentious plan to cut Pinellas County's emergency medical services pay to the city by about $1 million.

The city also will cut about a dozen maintenance and urban forestry jobs, outsourcing electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning and landscaping work to outside contractors. Officials say the cuts will save more than $500,000, but some City Council members worried about a lack of control.

With outsourcing, "we sometimes end up being at the mercy of the contractor," Vice Mayor George Cretekos said. "In an emergency situation, you want to make sure you have your team there."

Other cuts include two dispatchers, three fleet workers, parks employees and specialists in planning, engineering, records and public communications. Those cuts could likely hurt public departments increasingly trimmed to the bone, overworking employees and slowing response times.

"As we whittle away at staffing," City Manager Bill Horne wrote in the budget, "the impacts are not always easy to measure."

The city also found some savings in the budget. Park power bills dipped by more than $100,000 due to energy efficiency projects. And the city will save $100,000 it would have donated to the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project, the shelter and day center that closed in May.

Those helped lead to a few modest increases in expenditures. Officials budgeted $35,000 to fund longer hours at the North Greenwood branch library. Police will hire two school crossing guards.

But Mayor Frank Hibbard said the city's four big climbing costs — fuel, pensions, and medical and property insurance — continue to pose a big problem, after climbing dramatically over the last decade. City pensions will cost the city $18.9 million this year.

The property tax rate will remain at 5.155 mills, steady since 2009. The city's taxable property dropped to $7.6 billion this year, following four years in drops since the $11.2 billion peak.

The city will sock away another $300,000 in its reserves, raising the fund to $19.4 million, more than double the amount required by city policy.

Union representatives have slammed the city's growing "rainy day fund" as wasteful saving that should be spent on employees. But city leaders say the money should be saved for one-time emergencies, not recurring costs.

Council member John Doran said he supported the proposal but worried about the extent of staff cuts. He anticipated next year's budget could be just as grim.

"We're long past a point where there are too many people doing anything," Doran said. "We're just not doing as much. We just can't do it."

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

. If you go

Budget meetings at City Hall

July 18, 8:30 a.m.: City staff presents proposed budget to City Council.

July 21, 6 p.m.: Council sets Truth in Millage property tax rate. Rate cannot be raised afterward.

Sept. 14, 6 p.m.: Public hearing on budget at council meeting.

Sept. 29, 6 p.m.: Final public hearing and council vote during special budget meeting.

Clearwater may cut 28 jobs to leave property tax rate alone 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 8:56pm]

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