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Hillsborough still in a budget bind, but less dire than expected

TAMPA — With Hillsborough County commissioners struggling to trim $140 million in spending to balance their 2010 budget, they received a nugget of good news Wednesday.

They'll have to cut $19 million less than expected, budget director Eric Johnson told them at a workshop, one in a series to review the budget proposed by County Administrator Pat Bean.

Among the adjustments he revealed:

• A $5.5 million earnings increase due to a boost in property tax revenue projections.

• An $8 million savings realized by reducing the county's vehicle expenses.

• A $4 million drop in the sheriff's department budget request.

Johnson also floated the idea of asking the county's Tourist Development Council to consider using tourist taxes to cover about $800,000 obligated to the Tampa Sports Authority for maintenance at Raymond James Stadium. That work is supposed to be paid for with city and county property taxes.

The would free up about $530,000 that could be used for parks. The rest would go to the city of Tampa.

Johnson said the council might be open to the proposal because the county's current budget calls for saving $2.5 million by closing regional parks two days a week, which would deliver a hit to ecotourism.

"A certain number of those people are foreigners that are coming here and staying in hotels and using tourist businesses," Johnson said.

Commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe embraced the concept. Sharpe said he spent time with officials of a company considering bringing its manufacturing operation to the area.

"Parks came up," Sharpe said. "Nobody's wants to hear we're closing parks. This is part of economic development."

Commissioners, though, didn't seem inclined to increase the county property tax rate when they meet today.

Instead, they indicated they are more likely to slightly lower the rate, something they've done for 14 consecutive years.

"I'm interested in continuing that policy," Hagan said.

Commissioner Jim Norman said the reduction would be symbolic, with little impact on the county's bottom line.

Only Commissioner Kevin Beckner spoke about possibly rejecting a decrease, saying homeowners might be willing to forego the savings to keep programs for senior citizens and children intact.

"We need to be prepared to have a very realistic conversation about specific programs and services that may be impacted," he said.

Last year's tiny reduction saved a homeowner with a $250,000 house and a $50,000 homestead exemption about $10.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Hillsborough still in a budget bind, but less dire than expected 07/29/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 29, 2009 11:13pm]
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