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Clearwater's budget is back on solid ground

CLEARWATER — The city's budget, once in free fall, is back on solid ground, stabilized by resurgent property values and rainy-day reserves.

With the city's $113 million general fund growing by $4 million since last year, city leaders are pushing for a "status quo" budget that could end years of deep fiscal cuts.

The city's property tax rate will likely stay the same, a preliminary budget shows, and the city workforce won't face further layoffs. Most, in fact, will receive raises.

"Clearwater has weathered another budget storm," Mayor George Cretekos said. "Hopefully things are going to get better next year. I'm feeling optimistic."

Property values here dropped $110 million over the last year, continuing a 33 percent drop since their 2007 peak but slowing in their decline. Property tax revenue, the lion's share of the city's operating fund, dropped 1 percent.

All city departments were told to cut 1 percent of spending, leading to $700,000 in cuts. Other city taxes and charges, from business tax receipts to boosted revenues at Pier 60, helped fill the fiscal gap.

Changes to city pensions — an agreement reached by city and union negotiators — could save the city $4.5 million in their first year. But first they'll need voters' approval in a November referendum.

In the meantime, city leaders will balance Clearwater's budget using $1.6 million saved in the city's $20 million general reserve fund.

Another $1.4 million in reserves will go toward new vehicles for the fire department: $500,000 to replace one of eight front-line fire engines and $850,000 to replace a heavy rescue unit carrying specialized equipment for fires and car crashes.

City staffers recommended to City Council that the property tax rate remain at 5.15 mills, or $5.15 for every $1,000 of taxable property. For example, owners of a $150,000 home with a full $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $515 in property taxes.

The city shed a fifth of its workforce in the last five years, with more than two dozen firefighters, police dispatchers and other employees cut last year.

But no large layoffs are planned for the next fiscal year. In fact, the city is adding employees to its stormwater and gas systems, as well as an officer for its newly begun red-light camera program.

Administrators and general employees will be given 2.5 percent raises, and unionized police officers and firefighters will receive 2.5 percent bonuses, over the next year. City Council salaries, which pay members about $20,000 a year, will be increased 3.6 percent.

Construction will begin over the next year on two projects funded by the Penny for Pinellas sales tax: the $4.7 million renovation of the Countryside Library and the $2.3 million renovation of the Sid Lickton baseball and softball fields, located near the Clearwater Airpark.

Another $500,000 will be spent to refurbish the Pier 60 bait house, eroded by saltwater, and a $1.2 million development-services center in the Municipal Services Building, as suggested by last year's Business Task Force.

Improvements to Bright House Field, a new water treatment plant in Countyside, and more than $500,000 on traffic calming in the Wood Valley and Hillcrest neighborhoods will also account for city capital spending.

The city will spend $150,000 less than first estimated to maintain tennis and basketball courts, swimming pools, playgrounds and park amenities like lights and benches.

The City Council will discuss the budget July 16 and the property tax rate July 19. The budget's first public hearing will be Sept. 4, with final adoption set for later that month.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater's budget is back on solid ground 07/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 5, 2012 9:41pm]

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