CLEARWATER — City leaders are talking tough about budget cuts, but one thing that didn't make the chopping block: expenses for a baseball trip to Philadelphia.
Four City Council members, two city managers and the head of parks and recreation will meet with Phillies owners this month, when Vice Mayor George Cretekos will throw out the first pitch of a game.
It's an annual ritual since the Phillies made Clearwater its spring training home 64 years ago, and some of the council members say they're going to pay their own way. But taxpayers are still expected to pick up at least $2,800 for the trip at a time when officials are bemoaning the city's fiscal future.
State lawmakers last year and voters earlier this year successfully approved measures that limit the amount of property taxes local governments can collect. And already Clearwater has reduced hours at recreation centers and libraries and cut jobs and a number of services.
Clearwater leaders are defending the trip, saying it makes good fiscal sense in the long run.
"The (Phillies) are one of our most important taxpayers and these guys have other choices in terms of where to put their operations, but they pour so much money into the city, we think it's a good idea (to go)," said council member Paul Gibson, who's picking up his own tab.
Gibson said the council will probably take a look at further belt-tightening and future trips could be cut. But, he said, he didn't have a problem with taxpayers paying for the trip because "it's a city function."
Three of the City Council members said they're going to pay their own way, but the majority of the tab for the vice mayor and three staffers will be picked up by taxpayers.
Clearwater officials say the trip is worth the expense to nurture a relationship with a business that spends $7-million in the city each year and has an estimated economic impact of $35-million a year.
Most officials plan to attend games June 20, 21 and 22, and meet with team owners to find ways to get the business community to further embrace the Phillies.
Traveling at taxpayer expense will be Cretekos, City Manager Bill Horne, Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin, and parks director Kevin Dunbar. Several city officials' spouses, along with a contingent from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, are also on the trip, but are paying their own way. Along with Gibson, council members Carlen Petersen and John Doran are also paying for themselves.
The city's costs: roughly $860 for airfare on Southwest Airlines; a little over $1,600 to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Hampton Inn; a combined $330 daily food allowance for officials, per city policy for the trip. (Cretekos said he will pay for his own food.)
Officials say the public shouldn't bash them because the trip will pay for itself. This is no junket, they add, rather a business trip mixed with a little pleasure.
Members plan to attend — for free — the three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels at Citizens Bank Park, where Cretekos will throw out the ceremonial pitch June 21. But they will also spend June 20 with team owners to exchange ideas about better marketing spring training.
In recent years, public outcry has caused officials in local baseball cities, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Dunedin, to curb the trips, cancel them or cut back on the number of officials who attend.
Dunedin, for example, hasn't sent anyone to Toronto for the past few years to meet with the Blue Jays owners because officials said they were concerned about budget cuts.
"We decided not to do it in general recognition of the tight budget and it's probably not an appropriate expenditure given the changes we have to deal with," Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth said.
But, Clearwater's Petersen said "people have to remember the amount of revenue the Phillies bring to the city — it's huge and important — and people tend to forget."
When asked why the city doesn't send only one or two representatives, Horne said each person plays a key role in the relationship with the Phillies. For example, Dunbar is the city's team liaison and Irwin oversees economic development.
He added that in his budget proposal for the upcoming year he recommends cutting travel and training expenses 20 percent for each department — a savings of $146,560 from the city's $123-million general operating fund.
"We're fine this (current) budget year, but next year is a completely different story," Horne said.
The city has been the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies for 64 years. The club's Single-A team, the Threshers, also plays at Bright House Networks Field.
The mayor at least once a year gets a chance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch during a Phillies game. But this year Frank Hibbard said family commitments will keep him home. That means Cretekos gets the honor.
"I may end up rolling it in," Cretekos said. "No seriously, I'm not even thinking about the pitch, but I will try to make Clearwater proud."