Hillsborough County draft budget would cut $140 million and eliminate 900 jobs

TAMPA — Consumer protection: eliminated. Code enforcement: slashed by 25 percent. Dog catcher patrols: clipped. Regional parks: closed two days a week. Nonprofits: weaned of taxpayer money.

Those are some of the highlights of a draft of proposed budget reductions obtained by the St. Petersburg Times that Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean will present to commissioners today.

The 12-page list includes nearly $140 million in spending cuts, down from last year's operating budget of roughly $1 billion. It would eliminate 900 jobs, or about one-sixth of the county's work force. It spares few programs, lopping everything from environmental protection to economic development.

A popular after-school program that survived the ax last year once again faces the prospect of being eliminated.

The draft is not Bean's final recommendation, but rather a late version that provides a detailed look at how she is leaning.

Upset that the list of potential cuts had been leaked, she declined to comment, and her budget director immediately sought to identify the source.

Bean did provide a copy of a recorded statement she will make to employees on the county's Intranet today. It's titled "A Perfect Storm," a nod to the combination of an ailing economy and sharply reduced tax receipts driving her recommendation.

"I have worked for county government for more than 32 years (and) this is the most difficult time we have ever encountered," she said. "County government as we have known it will be changed forever."

The budget recommendation is the first salvo in what will be months of deliberations by commissioners to hash out a spending plan for the next two years. Commissioners reached Tuesday signaled that they will play a particularly vigorous role in shaping that plan, which could mean Bean's proposal will see significant revisions.

"It is imperative that there be an active and genuine dialogue with Hillsborough County residents … about what is important to them as we truly define the government services that we should offer," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham. "It's an historic opportunity to clear our heads and right the direction of county government."

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan echoed those sentiments, but at the same time said he will oppose cutting the county's after-school program. The same proposal last year drew protests by the score.

"Clearly we're being forced to change the way we operate," he said. But "from my perspective, eliminating the after-school program is not an option."

The public will have lots of chances to chime in. Commissioners are likely to hold one or more virtual town hall meetings this summer, through which residents will be able to sound off from home or remote community centers.

Commissioners are not expected to finalize the budget until Sept. 17.

Bean's proposal has been much anticipated since she floated the prospect earlier this year that she could shed as many as 1,000 jobs. Nowhere is the anxiety more palpable than at County Center, where the question, "How are you doing?" is often answered, "I'll find out (today)."

In addition to an anticipated salary freeze, Bean is proposing as many as two unpaid furlough days for county employees. Deferred compensation payments also may be cut, as may an array of benefits that help offset employee insurance costs.

After two years of budget cuts, the public is likely to notice this round.

About 30 percent of employees in the county Animal Services Department would lose their jobs, many of whom respond to nuisance or dangerous animal calls. Both the Environmental Protection and Planning commissions, pared in recent years, would face additional 35 percent cuts by year two of Bean's proposal.

In-home visits to frail elderly residents who get county assistance would become less frequent. Code enforcement ranks would be thinned by 17 people, a quarter of that work force.

The county would no longer investigate fraud and bad business dealings, leaving that work to the state.

Nonprofit groups that rely on county taxpayer money would get less. Some, including the Arts Council and Lowry Park Zoo, the latter of which has faced recent scrutiny for lax oversight of spending, would get no money in 2011.

Outreach to minority residents could become part-time work. The county's Economic Development Department may lose a third of its staff, and library workers could face a new round of culling.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe emphasized that this is a starting point in a difficult discussion. While acknowledging the challenge, he said he is not satisfied with Bean's approach, the broad outlines of which she has presented to commissioners in private meetings.

"We've got to lean forward and rethink how we're doing things," Sharpe said. "Otherwise we do what we've got here, which is 'slash this and slash that,' and we end up not doing anything very well."

In Bean's message to employees, she talks about how she tried to spread the pain to include all ranks, not just front-line workers. She calls them family.

In recent days, sties have formed around the rims of her eyelids.

"This is bitter news," she will tell employees today. "Please do not allow this bitter news to become your bitterness.

"We must all continue to provide quality public service to our citizens no matter what occurs."

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

Hillsborough County draft budget would cut $140 million and eliminate 900 jobs 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 7:13pm]

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