PINELLAS PARK — Given the current economic situation, businesses need all the help they can get, but council members here are planning to withdraw funding from a Chamber of Commerce program because the city is facing a financial crisis of its own.
The loss of Pinellas Park's $17,448 annual contribution would kill the Business Assistance Partnership program, which is funded by equal contributions from the city, the county and the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce. The money pays the salary of a business assistance partnership specialist, or BAPS, who helps existing businesses and works to attract new ones to the community.
Pinellas Park has had the program since 2002, but Mayor Bill Mischler said the departure of Julie Roberts, the latest BAPS, was a good time to tell the chamber that the city would have to pull its funding at the end of this fiscal year. Mischler said he did not want the chamber to hire a new BAPS who might believe that the job was long-term.
"I have a concern that I wouldn't want someone to quit their job right now and take this anticipating that they're going to have this forever," Mischler said Tuesday during a council workshop.
City Manager Mike Gustafson said he was planning to suggest during budget discussions next year that officials eliminate the program because the city simply can't afford it.
"I know we are coming on a very tough budget year," Gustafson said. "We are telling our employees, or at least the administrators, that they can't fill positions right now. I've got about 12 to 13 positions open right this minute I'm not letting them fill. It's probably not fair to tell my employees we can't fill them, but the BAPS we can fill."
Housh Ghovaee, chairman of the chamber board, said Mischler called him the day after the workshop to tell him about the discussion. Ghovaee said he is not assuming the city will not be able to come up with the money, but if the money is lost, then the chamber will try to find another way to fund someone to fill that position or a similar one. The money is available to pay someone until Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends, but it is not clear how the chamber plans to handle the situation. For now, Ghovaee said, one of the employees from his engineering firm is at the chamber, helping fill some of the BAPS' duties.
"We just want to see what will happen," he said. "It may go on, and it may not."
Ghovaee was not the only one unsure of the funding. Council members who have served for years with Mischler questioned his ability to maintain his tough stand. They teased him during the workshop, saying they expected him to flip-flop on the issue.
That part of the conversation began after the council was reminded that it would have its annual meeting with chamber officials in January. Council member Rick Butler asked whether Mischler had spoken to anyone at the chamber.
"It doesn't matter," Mischler said.
Butler: "It doesn't matter?"
Mischler: "... As Mike says, we're at the point, on the verge of almost getting ready to maybe lay off people. It could happen in the next budget year because we don't know what funds are coming. We don't know and for us to fill an outside position like that I think is not the time to do this. …Tell them that it will be funded until Sept. 30. I don't want to put them on a string thinking that, well, maybe there is a possibility that they're going to have it later. If we feel that way now, we should let them know."
A few moments later, Butler said, "I just want to be here six months from now with you, the mayor, saying, 'You know, maybe we want to reconsider this.' Not that that would ever happen."
Council member Ed Taylor said to Butler, "You are so right." Taylor then said to Mischler, "I'm all for getting rid of it but as soon as they sit here in January and bring that program up, you are going to go, 'Well, could we reconsider that?' "
Mischler: "I'm not. I can't. I can't do it."
The BAPS program was started by the county 10 years ago as a three-way partnership between the county, interested cities and chambers of commerce. In addition to the Pinellas Park program, there are others across the county in Seminole, St. Petersburg, Largo, Clearwater and Palm Harbor. There is also one for the unincorporated area and another who works with the Hispanic Initiative Front to target ethnic minority groups, veterans and other special groups.
The Seminole chamber's program appears to be doing well and is in no apparent danger of losing funding.
Seminole City Manager Frank "Edmunds has always said, 'If we can save just one business, we're doing our job,' " said Gretchen Cain, the chamber BAPS.
Cain said she thinks the Seminole BAPS program has been effective, helping individual businesses with plans, advice and other needs. Beyond the one-on-one help, Cain puts on an annual trade show at Seminole Mall that will likely become semiannual because of demand. And the chamber has a monthslong entrepreneurial program to help teach skills that will translate to economic success.