LARGO — City staff has spent months combing through the proposed 2013 budget, looking for spots to trim $2.8 million, which they hope will prevent them from needing a big tax hike to deal with falling property values.
They identified 24 full-time equivalent positions that could be cut, and presented their recommendations to the City Commission last week.
After hearing from commissioners, they've got more work to do.
Commissioners told staff to forget about "unfunding" three police officer positions, a type of budget cut that Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert explained is temporary.
"Unfunded or eliminated, the result is the same, there are three less police officers on the street, and I don't like that," Mayor Pat Gerard said at last week's commission meeting.
The three officer positions were part of $483,400 in proposed cuts to the Police Department — more than any other department. Recreation, Parks & Arts was second, with $437,500, but Commissioner Curtis Holmes pointed out that included in those savings was $101,200 in additional revenue from increased rates and ticket prices.
Commissioners also told staff to nix $125 gift cards for all employees, a planned holiday gift in lieu of raises. No city employee has gotten a raise in two years and many have gone three years without a raise. The gift card expenditure totaled $75,000, which several commissioners pointed out could save a few of the jobs on the chopping block.
There are still a few variables that could change how much staff needs to cut in general-fund spending. The Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office will release estimated value changes in June, Schubert said. If values are higher than anticipated, the city won't need to cut as much.
Schubert is also waiting to find out how much employees' health insurance coverage will increase next year. He expects to get a quote in June, he told commissioners.
Commissioner Michael Smith wondered why travel and training expenses for city staff weren't included on the list of potential savings. The city plans to spend about $246,000 in travel and training, only $35,900 of which is required for certain certifications and licenses. Smith suggested cutting $50,000 from the cost of training that isn't required.
City Manager Mac Craig said that would be a bad idea.
"It's needed to keep people here," Craig said. "If we can't do travel and training to improve what they (employees) do, they're not going to stay here."
Gerard agreed that staff should take a second look at those expenses before the next budget discussion. Craig will release his proposed budget in July, and the commission will discuss it several times before voting on it in September. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
Commissioner Woody Brown brought a moment of levity to the budget chat when he asked about the $25 Publix gift cards the city usually gives its employees every year. Publix charges Largo full price for the cards. Brown, a chiropractor, asked why the city couldn't shop around for a discount.
"If I was giving 800 $25 gift certificates to my business, I'd cut you a deal," he said, before realizing someone might misinterpret his hypothetical as a suggestion.
"I'm not proposing that … I couldn't handle that," Brown said, as the other commissioners laughed.
"I could use a massage," Gerard said.
Schubert said he'd look into it.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.