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Pinellas to lay off 211 county workers

Pinellas County began handing out pink slips Thursday to 211 employees who face layoffs under budget cuts — the start of dramatic reductions in basic services as the county contends with slumping tax rolls.

The layoffs run through virtually every department, affecting everything from parks and street repairs to customer service and health care.

"These are people with house payments, car payments, kids in school — it's just a shame," County Commissioner John Morroni said. "But we're in an economy that is the worst it's been in 60 years. And things have to change with it."

The layoffs are part of changes that County Adminstrator Bob LaSala has promised will "radically" reshape government, leading to a fourth year of cutting jobs and dismantling programs and departments. The county faces an $80 million deficit over the next two years.

After the layoffs take effect Sept. 30, residents will feel the cuts in longer waits for building inspections, less funding for indigent health care and slower response times for customers asking for help with services such as utilities or code enforcement, LaSala said.

"From a county services standpoint, I'm sure we're going to see it, and probably we're already seeing it," said Ron Schultz, 44, an East Lake resident concerned with policing and parks. "We're already having more potholes."

The changes start with parks, where LaSala intends to ask the County Commission to approve a $5 fee per carload to enter Fort De Soto park, and $3 at other regional parks.

He also had planned to close parks two day a week, but abandoned that proposal because of residents' opposition.

Still, 23 workers got layoff notices in the Culture, Education and Leisure department, which includes parks.

Arts programs are being cut, and the mobile animal control van for vet services will be shut down unless private groups take over. A job training program for the needy, STARS, will be outsourced.

County utilities will lose 30 workers despite a proposed increase in water and sewer rates of $1.50 a month for the average household.

"We had to cut operations expenses even more deeply this year in order to try to continue the service delivery systems. Next year doesn't look any more promising," LaSala said.

Ultimately, the cuts probably will register more with the public than in previous years because actual services are hit more, and there are fewer vacant jobs to soften the blow.

Of the 211 layoffs, roughly 12 percent are managers. LaSala dissuaded the commission from seeking furloughs because they weren't long-term solutions.

The elimination notices included cultural affairs director Judith Powers and environmental management director Will Davis, who officials said will be let loose three years before his deferred retirement date because his agency is being dismantled.

LaSala proposes splitting the environmental agency's functions among parks, public works and the building and code inspection divisions.

The County Commission must still approve LaSala's plan.

Questions are already surfacing as the county prepares for any effects from the BP oil spill and faces criticism of its management of a film shoot at Shell Key that may have harmed imperiled birds.

"We're a long way to September — especially (with) what just happened in the gulf and especially what happened out in Shell Key," Morroni said. "Just the fact that department's being decimated, it's scaring the environmental community, and rightly so."

LaSala also plans to combine the engineering offices of the public works and utilities departments. Next year, he intends to combine utilities and public works.

"We are not going to be in the same level of safeguarding assets as we were when the budget was more healthy," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

The county plans fundamental changes to its inner workings, too. The county phone system will soon switch to a voice-over-Internet system to save money. Employees will get stipends for phones, but not county-issued ones. The mainframe computer will be outsourced.

That's led to 46 of the 167 technology workers receiving layoff notices.

All told, at least 285 positions are proposed for elimination in addition to previously announced cuts by other countywide elected officials, including 178 by the Sheriff's Office. Only 155 of the 229 under LaSala received pink slips because of vacancies. Also, 74 employees whose jobs were targeted will be bumped to new jobs. Those employees have high enough performance ratings to get lower-ranking jobs in the county.

"These cuts are going right to the heart of services," Morroni said. "County government is changing, and it will probably be changed forever."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

FAST FACTS

What residents might notice

. Messier parks because of fewer maintenance workers.

. More potholes and litter on roadways.

. Longer waits on neighborhood complaints about things like overgrown weeds, roaming pets and derelict properties.

. Thinner coverage by the Sheriff's Office, which is eliminating 178 jobs.

Pinellas to lay off 211 county workers 06/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 25, 2010 1:18am]
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