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Property taxes raised to soften cuts in Pasco County budget

Pasco County officials set the tone of the financial season by their choice of a cover for the 2009-10 budget document: A picture of a nearly empty piggy bank.

Indeed, the first draft of the budget carried major cuts. Thanks in large part to tanking property values and Amendment 1, nearly 260 positions — about half of them filled — would be eliminated.

Their ranks included firefighters and parks employees, social workers and bus drivers. Libraries and the animal shelter would have shorter hours; social service agencies and 4-H would lose their county funding.

Things didn't turn out quite so dire, even though the final budget — $951-million — was about $30-million less than last year's.

Commissioners raised the property tax rate for the first time since 2001, generating enough money to help preserve some positions as well as open up new ones. Officials also lifted a hiring freeze.

In the end, 26 county workers lost their jobs. Many others took pay cuts.

The most contentious money battle turned out to be between county officials and the firefighters union. Commissioners leaned on firefighters to give up a raise and a higher form of holiday pay to help balance the fire district budget. Firefighters argued that they already make less money than their peers at other area departments. After the vote on one contract failed, the union voted last month to ratify a one-year contract in which they agreed to give up a 5 percent raise this year.

County officials expect the upcoming budget season to be just as exacting as this one, but they are getting some help on doing things differently.

Commissioners agreed this year to pay ICMA Consulting Services another $100,000 — for a total of $323,240 — to help them revamp how it comes up with future spending plans.

Not having much money to spend on new projects gave officials some downtime to plan for the future.

Commissioners gave their blessing to a new plan for the Lacoochee-Trilby area, a document officials hope to use to lure private and public investment in the economically depressed area.

And countywide, commissioners approved a strategic plan that calls for creating higher paying jobs and compact developments that would help change Pasco's status as a sprawling bedroom community.

First step? The consultant is helping officials come up with a business plan that links the overall strategic plan with their spending decisions.

In the current year's budget, for instance, officials funded two new positions in the planning department — one focused on economic development, the other on so-called "transit-oriented designs" that incorporate future mass transportation plans into new developments.

That strategic plan also calls for creating more public-private partnerships, and the first project up to bat is a multi-use sports complex. A California-based consultant, Sportsplex USA, which hoped to run the facility, recommended building the project on county-owned property in Trinity.

But the last week of December brought a surprise: Sports- plex was pulling out of the project, citing an "adversarial environment." Commissioners will discuss Jan. 12 how to proceed.

The county continued its quest to take over some of the smaller private utilities. In February, the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, of which Pasco is a member, bought Aloha Utilities. Later in the year, the authority was close to finishing a deal to buy Lindrick Service Corp., and closed on its acquisition of five smaller utilities: Colonial Manor, Holiday, Virginia Cities, Pasco Utilities Inc. and Dixie Grove.

A non-election year kept things pretty quiet at the helm. Commissioners renewed longtime County Administrator John Gallagher's contract for another two years, with the option for a two-year renewal.

But 2010 is an election year for two commissioners, Chairwoman Pat Mulieri and Commissioner Michael Cox.

Mulieri, who has said she plans to run again, faces a challenge in the Republican primary from former state Rep. Ken Littlefield, who has filed papers to run.

Cox, a Democrat, has picked up a Republican challenger, Henry Wilson Jr., a health care administrator. Cox had already raised nearly $20,000 to Wilson's $775, according to the latest available campaign reports.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Property taxes raised to soften cuts in Pasco County budget 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 1:54pm]

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