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Largo suffering through another year of budget cuts

LARGO — Fewer firefighters. Fewer new books in the library. Fewer performances at the city's cultural center.

This is Largo under the proposed 2013 budget, as the city staff told city commissioners last week. It's a city that will do less than it did in 2012. And 2012 Largo was a city that did less than it did in 2011, when it did less than it did in 2010, and so on, going back to 2008.

But this year is different, staffers said, because there is not much left to cut. Largo has pared $14.7 million from general fund spending since 2008, losing more than 90 full-time equivalent positions along the way. The proposed 2013 budget cuts $2.6 million in general fund spending and 23 full-time positions.

Commissioners asked the staff to restore one of those proposed cuts during Friday's work session, while re-affirming their support for a 9.7 percent increase in the property tax rate to avoid having to cut more in 2013.

"As much political heartache as that might give me in the next year, I think we have to do that," Mayor Pat Gerard said of the tax hike.

"This feels worse this year than it has since we've started cutting," Gerard added. "To cut three firefighters is just not okay."

The firefighters come from Engine 43, which serves western Largo, Belleair Bluffs and Belleair. Engine 43 is currently staffed with four firefighters, but that would be reduced to three. The reduction of one firefighter per shift (there are three shifts per day) would save the city $238,800.

Fire Chief Mike Wallace assured commissioners the reduction would not put residents at risk, but he said it could result in a worse Insurance Services Office rating for Largo Fire Rescue. Some property insurance companies factor in ISO ratings when determining how much to charge homeowners.

"I really hope that, after this year, we won't be facing cuts like this anymore," Wallace said.

Wallace was one of several to relay that message to commissioners.

Recreation, Parks and Arts Director Joan Byrne told commissioners her department isn't "just bleeding, we're hemorrhaging," and warned of the impacts of further cuts or fee hikes. The proposed budget calls for $273,000 in cuts to Recreation, Parks and Arts, and $101,200 raised through increased fees. Among the cuts is a $45,000 reduction in the Cultural Center's operating budget, which Byrne said will mean fewer performances at the center.

Among the cuts to other departments is a $50,000 hit to the library's new materials budget, which will result in 15 percent fewer new titles at the library in 2013, according to staff.

While commissioners reluctantly approved most cuts, they asked staff to reverse the elimination of Largo's Economic Development Division, which would have meant the layoff of division Manager Teresa Brydon and $84,400 in savings to the city.

Brydon recruits businesses to move to Largo and helps them find suitable sites. Commissioners agreed her skills are needed now more than ever.

"That position has done wonders to improve our relationships in the business community," Gerard said. "I think people are a bit traumatized that we're even thinking about cutting it."

The City Commission will vote on the budget twice in September. Those votes are scheduled for Sept. 4 and Sept. 20, both meetings starting at 6 p.m. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.

Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Largo suffering through another year of budget cuts 08/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 5:38pm]
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