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Pinellas County administrator says deeper cuts in spending needed

Facing a budget shortfall and with revenue forecasts grim, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala on Tuesday called for deep spending reductions and a contraction of county government.

Looking ahead to the 2010 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, LaSala said more than nibbling at the edges will be needed. Significant cuts to core services are unavoidable, he said, and impacts will be governmentwide.

"This is going to be very difficult," LaSala told a group of county leaders called together to hear his message at a work session. "We are going to have to make unprecedented changes in the way we do business."

To ensure the county weathers a recession that LaSala said is projected not to stabilize in Florida until 2011, he proposed cutting general fund spending for the coming fiscal year by 15 to 20 percent.

A 20 percent reduction from this year's level would result in a general fund budget of $437-million, or $20-million less than the general fund budget in 2003.

Though things look bad for 2010, the situation is immediate. Only three months into the current fiscal year, the county faces a projected budget shortfall of $12-million, officials said.

To fill the gap, officials plan a selective hiring freeze, to limit travel costs and equipment purchases and to ask that departments spend only 97 percent of the money they've been allotted this year.

The shortfall stems from revenue declines brought on by the economy. Looking toward next year, officials predict property tax revenue to drop by $37-million to $56-million, the third straight year of declines.

State sales tax revenue and income from building permits and other fees is projected to slide by $11-million to $14-million.

Budget director John Woodruff said that in past years governments could rely on their diverse revenue streams. If one was down, he said, others would compensate. Now, he said, all sources of income are in decline.

"We are really dealing with a crisis of historic proportions here," Woodruff said.

Though the projected revenue decrease for next year is between 9 and 13 percent, LaSala thinks deeper spending cuts are necessary. It's time to begin looking at the county budget in terms of multiyear cycles, he said, and economists predict more grief in 2010.

The County Commission embraced his proposal and later this month will meet to discuss policy priorities and give LaSala further direction on a government downsizing effort that's likely to last all year.

Officials insisted that even the politically charged area of public safety funding will get serious scrutiny.

Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, whose office gets a large share of the general fund, was present. During the most recent budget cycle, he and the county administration were involved in a funding standoff. At the workshop, he again drew the line.

"You have my support and cooperation to the extent that I believe we can provide the citizens of Pinellas County with a safe environment," Coats said.

Still being examined is the downturn's impact on Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue, which pays for county infrastructure projects. But Penny revenue mirrors state sales tax revenue, which officials project will continue to sink in 2010, resulting in a 10 percent drop from 2008 levels.

By March, the commission is to meet and consider what changes may have to be made to its Penny projects list.

County officials insist the situation is unlike anything they've experienced and plan to explore aggressive cost-saving measures and even new ways of generating income.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-3144.

Pinellas County administrator says deeper cuts in spending needed 01/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 10:16pm]
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