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Dunedin may close pool during winter months to save money

DUNEDIN — Threatened last year by budget cuts, the Highlander Pool seemed doomed for a six-month closure last winter. But officials at the last minute, egged on by supportive swimmers, were able to shuffle enough funds to keep it open year-round.

This year, they might not be so lucky. Property taxes have crashed by $1.2 million. The city's tax revenue dropped to its lowest level since 2003. And even after tapping into reserves, the city will remain $130,000 short of last year's spending.

To help fill the hole, officials will likely shutter the doors of the Highlander for half a year during the chillier months between October and March, according to a budget proposed by city officials.

The winter hours are the pool's least active, pulling in only about 100 visitors a day for lap swimming and the Sun Masters swim team, said parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi. And because of the energy costs needed to warm the water, those days are also the most expensive.

"It really was not a viable business model," Commissioner Julie Bujalski said Friday. "Last year I think we felt like, 'Let's try to market it for a seasonal closure, to let people know this is going to happen.' This year, everybody kind of knew it was coming."

Commissioners voted this month to keep the property tax rate at $3.56 per $1,000 of taxable value — one of the lowest rates in the county. That rate won't be doing any favors to city coffers, which dipped to $25 million largely due to a 5 percent dive in property values.

The 2011 budget isn't yet finished, and officials could recommend changes at a workshop next month before September's final hearings. But the early budget reveals what residents could see by the October start of next fiscal year.

Three recreation employees — a school educator with the Nature Center, a head lifeguard and a pool mechanic — will lose their jobs. Allotments for the Dunedin Stadium, Fine Arts Center and Historical Society will shrink. Library fines will shift from a dime a day to a quarter, earning the city about $63,000. Recreation cards will cost a few bucks more.

The city's finances, however, are not without their saving graces.

Utility taxes, licensing fees, fines and forfeitures netted the city $850,000 in year-over-year profits, records show.

About $1 million in executive salaries will drop by about $200,000, while $7.8 million in regular salaries will drop by half a percent.

And the city's operational hand-off of St. Andrews Links to management firm Billy Casper Golf could save the budget about $666,000. The Links, a little brother to the Dunedin Golf Club's more profitable Donald Ross course next door, lost the city $300,000 over the last three years before commissioners in March signed it into corporate hands.

The biggest budgetary buoy, however, could come from about $1.2 million in city reserves. Officials last year chose to leave its "rainy day" fund relatively untouched. But this year's use knocks the $7 million in general reserves down by about a fifth.

Still, city leaders seem more eager to dip into money already saved and stored than boosting taxes or cutting services and jobs — even if, as officials have said, that's no "permanent, structural solution."

"It's somewhat controversial," Commissioner Ron Barnette said. "But when you're sitting on more reserves than you expected, that little bridge to get you over the shortfall may be in order."

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

Dunedin may close pool during winter months to save money 07/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 7:58pm]
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