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Facing shortfall, Tarpon Springs officials weigh budget options

TARPON SPRINGS —The budgetary decisions that Tarpon Springs commissioners make in the coming months could have stark consequences on the city's future financial health and the decisions that future elected officials will have to make.

And to drive that point home Tuesday night, Arie Walker, the city's finance director, laid out the city's cash shortfall in the outlying budget years if adjustments are not made immediately.

The presentation resulted in the board of commissioners agreeing by a 3-2 vote to raise the city's property tax rate.

"I was trying to show them at this point because we are using a lot of money from our reserves this year," Walker said. "While we have a very healthy reserve, unless there were changes made, we couldn't continue on this indefinitely. I wanted them to see the impact of their decision on future years."

Mayor Beverley Billiris voted against the tax rate increase and is "opposed to the mind-set" of turning to the reserve fund. She said the reserve fund was beefed up in recent years for catastrophic events, not to be a constant way to balance the city's budget.

"We need more innovative ways to raise money for the city than on the backs of the residents," Billiris said. "It may not be considered raising taxes, but it's still raising the millage rate, and I don't think it's right."

Commissioner Chris Alahouzos also voted against the increase.

The city is required to have a reserve fund that is 20 percent of its nearly $20 million operating budget. Currently, the fund has about $8.7 million or 44 percent of the operating budget. The city has pulled about $1 million from its reserve fund to balance the current fiscal year budget.

The city's current property tax rate is 4.5738, or about $4.57 per $1,000 of taxable value. The commission voted Tuesday to increase the rate to 5 mills, or $5 per every $1,000 of taxable value.

For a homeowner of property with a taxable value of $250,000, the tax bill would rise from $914.76 to $1,000. That figure includes the $50,000 homestead exemption.

It would take a tax rate of 5.1990 to bring in the same amount of revenue as the previous fiscal year, but the Tarpon Springs charter prohibits an increase greater than a half mill a year, Walker said.

The 5-mill rate will leave the city with a $349,245 shortfall in the general fund, which would be made up with reserve funds.

Walker said the shortfall could cause the city to continue to deplete its reserves. Some city commissioners don't want to leave a financial burden on future commissions.

"I can't, in good conscience, leave these important decisions to someone two years from now," said Commissioner Robin Saenger, who voted to increase the tax rate. "This is something as a community we are going to have to deal with. When I ran for office, I was saying to hold the long-term vision of the city. … I didn't think it would be this."

Commissioner Susan Slattery also voted for the increase, though she thought the city could look for further cuts.

"I think there's still a lot of fluff in our budget," Slattery said. "Some areas, we can re-look at … We have frozen positions; why not look at those and cutting them?"

Billiris is adamant about looking for ways to bring in additional revenue. One idea, she said, is to add red light cameras. The revenue collected from those who are caught running red lights goes directly back to the city.

"There are cities making $15,000 a week off those things," Billiris said. "We need to be thinking differently at how we do government instead of looking at drawing down our reserve for the next three years. I think we can do it."

Demorris A. Lee can reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174

Fast facts

Weigh in

Residents will have an opportunity to have their say about the city's budget process during two public meetings at City Hall, 324 E. Pine St. The first is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Sept. 3. The second is Sept. 21, when commissioners will vote on a final budget.

Facing shortfall, Tarpon Springs officials weigh budget options 08/20/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 20, 2009 8:09pm]
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