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In the fifth year of budget shortfalls, local governments ask: What's left to cut?

Pasco residents can't use libraries on Mondays because budget cuts forced them to close.

More than 3,400 Hillsborough parents had to find alternative after-school care for their children after the county scrapped the program to save money.

Pinellas cut 1,600 jobs, reducing the county's workforce to its lowest level since 1985.

Local governments and school districts across Tampa Bay have shriveled since the 2008 economic downturn. Spending has been slashed, services cut and jobs lost.

If there was any consolation among budget directors, it was that next year promised to be different as the economy was starting to show signs of life.

But as property values continue to slump, officials are finding there's no stop to the bloodletting. Now entering a fifth consecutive round of cuts, residents are beginning to feel the pain, officials say.

"We kind of thought 2012 was going to be the bottom," said Tom Fesler, budget director for Hillsborough County. "That's not happening. And when you've been through five years of making cuts, it becomes more challenging. What's left to cut?"

Tampa Bay's school districts, counties and largest city governments show a combined estimated shortfall of more than $124 million next year — the equivalent of eliminating the entire budgets for either Clearwater or Hernando County.

It's a financial hit that comes out of the funds that pay for public schools, police, fire protection, parks, libraries, recreation centers, code enforcement and garbage collection. Although the cuts are smaller than in years past, they're in some ways more severe because they're being made after these governments already shed more than 5,400 employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in spending over the past four years. Even conservative officials wonder if it's time to consider alternatives to more cutting.

"We've cut past the bone," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. "We're in the cremation phase. For this next round, I've determined that it's impossible for this city to meet its needs with the current revenue projections."

Foster, who has resisted property tax hikes, says he'll make a recommendation in June as to whether he'll propose any revenue increases, including a rate hike. During a Wednesday town hall meeting, he got encouragement from a crowd of 100 residents that told him to do just that.

"This gap in resources is a silent hurricane that has hit our cities," Winnie Foster told Foster (no relation) and council members.

Yet despite a near consensus that continued cutting will cause lasting harm, few elected officials are leading the charge to raise revenue through higher taxes to make up the shortfall.

"It's a tough economic environment to ask people to pay more," said Dennis Rogero, Tampa's budget director, who must find ways to plug a $30 million hole in next year's budget.

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Hillsborough and Pinellas counties face eight-digit shortfalls, but both have solidly conservative commissions. Tampa faces the highest shortfall in the region. None of the governments are considering rate hikes to the so-called roll-forward rate — the level at which the increase brings in the same revenue as the previous year. It doesn't represent a tax increase because the average homeowner wouldn't see an increase because of falling values, yet all three boards shun it as unacceptable.

"I've supported that in the past when the board was less conservative than the one now," said Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch. "It's just not possible now."

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala said the county might dip into reserves to help bridge the gap. Hillsborough might as well, Fesler said. No such luck in Tampa.

"All roads lead to revenue reductions," said Rogero, Tampa's budget director.

Cutting taxes in Hillsborough is still in vogue, where commissioners have reduced the property tax rate for 19 straight years. Don't expect a change in 2012, said Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

"Cost of living has gone up, how better to help people than by lowering the rate?" Sharpe said.

Sharpe said he wants to continue to consolidate and privatize services. Still, he said, "at some point" new revenue needs to be found.

"We were fat," Sharpe said. "But I'm not sure we can eliminate any more without affecting the quality of life."

While the cuts made two to three years ago were larger, they were also easier, budget officials say. As Sharpe points out, governments did get big during the boom years. In some cases, they provided services, like Hillsborough's after-school programs, that weren't traditional.

"When taxes were growing, you could have five new parks projects a year," Fesler said. "Now it's probably one a year."

Budget directors mostly have avoided a significant public backlash. For one, the services that the public sees and feel — police, fire, garbage — have been spared more than other services. Also, some tactics, such as dipping into reserve funds and using federal stimulus money, for a time helped conceal the extent of the cuts.

Clever budgetary maneuvers, affectionately called "rabbits out of the hat" by wonks, have also helped. Fesler said Hillsborough saved $1 million by contracting out its mowing services. Tampa's Rogero said last year the city raised $7 million by increasing TECO's franchise fee by 1.5 percent.

But reserve funds are running dry. Stimulus money is gone. The easiest, most obvious adjustments have been made.

"We've done the reorganizations and the consolidations," Rogero said. "There are fewer rabbits to pull out of fewer hats."

Already, the seams are showing. In Hernando, maintenance workers aren't replacing the field sod as frequently, and the condition of the fields is worsening, said George Zoettlein, the county budget manager. In Pinellas, they've closed parks bathrooms and now charge a $5 fee at Fort De Soto Park. In St. Petersburg, parking meter rates have doubled in two years. In Pasco, they closed a county pool and briefly shut down a fire station last summer.

With another shortfall looming, officials say the public should brace itself.

"Among the employees, we're getting close to morale burnout," said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "Our cuts have made us more efficient, it made us do things better. But we've been asking fewer people to do the same amount of work, and they've been doing it for a while. At some point, it's not efficient any more."

"People haven't seen the stuff we've been doing," said Zoettlein. "They haven't seen much of a decrease in services. But we can't sustain this. With another shortfall, it's like, 'Where else do you cut?' And this time, it'll be in the level of service. We've gone as far as we can go."

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Tony Marrero, Jeff Solochek and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

In the fifth year of budget shortfalls, local governments ask: What's left to cut? 04/28/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 29, 2012 1:09am]

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