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Hillsborough County budget cuts to run deep

TAMPA — As Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean unveiled her budget for the year, a series of staff meetings took place in county buildings Wednesday.

People hugged and tears flowed as hundreds of employees learned whether their jobs were on the block after months of dread.

"This has been a nightmare for me," Bean told county commissioners as she unveiled a budget that would shed nearly 1,100 jobs and $144 million in spending in the next two years. "We have a lot of good employees who will not be working for us in the future. That's very hard for me."

The $3.5 billion budget proposal would slash spending by an average of 13 percent in areas that rely on property tax revenue. Parks and recreation, code enforcement, consumer protection, child care licensing, animal services and nonprofit spending would be particularly hard hit.

Bean's proposal, which commissioners will debate and modify during the summer, comes in response to sharply declining property values and construction. Both declines fuel a roughly $1.1 billion annual budget that relies largely on property taxes and pays for everything from sheriff's patrols to environmental protection.

Almost all departments would lose money, from 2 percent for the Sheriff's Office in the coming budget year to 35 percent for the Environmental Protection Commission by 2011, the second year of the budget cycle.

Most nonprofit groups that don't provide what are considered "basic human needs," such as domestic abuse centers, would not receive tax money by 2011. Groups that would be cut off include the Arts Council of Hillsborough County and Lowry Park Zoo.

A popular after-school program that many parents rely on as discount day care is again on the chopping block after surviving last year. It represents the largest block of job cuts. Many of the jobs are part time or have been empty since enrollment declined sharply when the county began charging a fee for the service.

"I think we're in a dying process," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, likening the budget situation to the troubled housing and auto industries. "And we're going to be in a process where we're reinventing ourselves."

Bean said commissioners will have trouble keeping programs she recommends eliminating without cutting elsewhere. And she said she will ask constitutional officers such as the sheriff to help find further savings. The sheriff's $370 million spending request consume's nearly a third of the proposed budget.

Sheriff David Gee said late Wednesday that he has already eliminated about 60 jobs and returned $35 million last year by cutting costs. Gee said he considers law enforcement and fire protection to be the most basic of services, a view he believes taxpayers share. But he said he will do what he can.

Under the budget plan, the county would shed about 855 of the 6,258 jobs held by people who report to Bean in Year 1. About a third of them are vacant now, and many are part-time parks workers. Two hundred fifty jobs would be shed in Year 2, a number likely to grow because Bean hasn't balanced the second year of the plan.

County employees would be forced to take five furlough days, and the county would cut part of its contribution to their deferred compensation. Together, that would amount to a 3.4 percent pay cut, Bean said.

Among other proposed cuts: The consumer protection and child care licensing programs would be eliminated. Regional parks would close two days a week. The animal shelter would scale back to a five-day schedule from six.

Many of the officers who respond to reports of dog bites and feral cats would be let go. So would about a quarter of the county's code enforcement staff. Many construction projects and maintenance of county properties would be deferred.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Proposal highlights

>> County would cut about 855 jobs in 2010 and another 250 in 2011.

>> Budget of $3.5 billion would slash $144 million in spending.

>> Among the departments likely to be hit the hardest:

parks and recreation, code enforcement, consumer protection,

child care licensing, animal services and nonprofits.

>> County employees would be forced to take five furlough days

and would see a reduction in contributions to deferred compensation, adding up to a 3.4 percent pay cut.

FAST FACTS

What's next

Commissioners will hold a series of public hearings and workshops this summer before the budget is finalized Sept. 17. The first workshop is 1:30 p.m. today at County Center.

Hillsborough County budget cuts to run deep 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 11:18pm]

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