Hillsborough County government may need to cut 1,000 jobs, Bean says

TAMPA — As many as 1,000 jobs — about one-sixth of Hillsborough County government's work force — could be eliminated because of declining property tax revenues, County Administrator Pat Bean said.

Hillsborough County is expecting property tax revenues to drop by more than $100 million next year. That's a decline of about 13 percent compared with this year's revenues, which pay for everything from firefighters to dogcatchers.

There's no way to bridge that gap without substantial cuts in county employment, Bean said. That likely means that the county will have to eliminate entire programs, from consumer protection to day care licensing and inspections, she added. Bean hasn't determined what should be cut.

But she has shared her forecast with some of the county's constitutional officers, as well as with a group of employees she convenes periodically as a sounding board.

"I'm just telling them, 'I want you guys to know this is going to be ugly,' " Bean said this week.

It's unclear how much Bean may be posturing, either to lower expectations or exact greater cooperation in spending reductions from other agencies that get county money. The anticipated job cuts apply only to those departments that report to Bean, not to constitutional officers such as the sheriff and clerk of the circuit court, who set their own budgets.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he hasn't heard any numbers yet, but expressed skepticism at the 1,000-job estimate. Bean, he noted, has announced large cuts before, but job losses were few because positions were pared largely through attrition.

"I want to see some backup before I can speak with any authority on this," Higginbotham said. "One thousand sounds like a high number."

If 1,000 jobs are cut, that would be in addition to roughly 800 positions the county has eliminated in the past two years because of declining property tax collections. The county currently has the equivalent of about 6,200 full-time workers.

If past cuts are an indication, the number of people laid off could in fact be substantially lower. Of the roughly 525 full-time jobs eliminated during the past two years, only about 107 people were laid off, according to county human resources records.

Many employees moved into other jobs that had been vacant or took part-time openings. The county has been in a nearly two-year hiring freeze in anticipation of declining revenues.

The county currently has about 400 job openings, though as many as half are temporary positions, Management Services Administrator Eric Johnson said. He said it's possible that officials may seek to trim its payroll over two years, since the county approves budgets in two-year cycles.

Other local governments around the state are grappling with similar declines in property tax receipts.

Pinellas County departments have proposed cutting at least 420 jobs to shave $85 million in spending. County Administrator Robert LaSala said it's too early to know the exact number of job cuts because county officials haven't settled on the details of service cuts or fees hikes.

Another possibility, Bean said, is freezing salaries and hiking employees' share of health care costs. The county recently started charging for after school programs and increased fees for summer camps.

She is hoping for cooperation from the Sheriff's Office and Fire-Rescue Department, which account for nearly half of the county's operating expenses that are funded by property taxes.

Sheriff David Gee is well-aware of the tough economic climate and will "be doing everything (he) can to pull our fair share of the weight and make things work," spokesman J.D. Callaway said.

George Sucarichi, chief of the county's politically powerful firefighters union, said his members also are sensitive to the times. But the county is contractually obligated to give fire-rescue workers a 3.5 percent annual raise.

Staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County government may need to cut 1,000 jobs, Bean says 03/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 4:05pm]

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