Monday, December 18, 2017
News Roundup

Should Clearwater spend budget windfall on pools or employees?

CLEARWATER — For the first time in many years, Clearwater will have a little extra money in its pocket when it's time to craft a budget.

What to spend that money on? Should Clearwater keep its neighborhood pools and libraries open longer, as residents are requesting, or should it give city employees a raise? Is there money for both?

These are the questions that Clearwater leaders will take up beginning next week.

"We have a little cushion in the budget," said City Manager Bill Horne. He has proposed a $392 million budget that would keep Clearwater's tax rate the same as it has been for the past five years.

That tax rate is $5.15 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. For example, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 after exemptions would pay Clearwater $515 in property taxes.

"We're in a whole lot better shape fiscally than we have been in the last several years," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. "The question is, can we start restoring some of the cuts that were made previously? We're taking a look at that."

It turns out that property values in Clearwater increased by a little over 6 percent in the last year. However, Horne's preliminary budget was drawn up a bit earlier, back when Pinellas County's property appraiser was predicting that Clearwater's values would increase by less than 6 percent.

That difference means the city would have an extra $390,000 to spend if it keeps the same tax rate, which it likely will.

Neighborhoods would like to see a share of that windfall, so Clearwater's elected officials are hearing about things like pool hours.

Clearwater maintains four outdoor pools at Clearwater Beach, Morningside, North Greenwood and Ross Norton. They've been open all summer but are about to shut with the start of the school year. They all close for the season at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Places like Morningside Pool near U.S. 19 have become increasingly popular because they're a place where neighborhood residents can come together as a community, Spencer Cook of the Morningside-Meadows Homeowners Association recently told the City Council.

"We constantly hear compliments about the quality of the facility itself — followed immediately by criticism and disbelief that unfortunately it's only open to the paying public for such a brief period of the year," Cook said.

Why not extend the city pools' hours to weekends through September? Cook noted that the cost of doing that has been pegged at less than $10,000 a year. "This is truly a drop in the bucket of a drop in the bucket of a drop in the bucket."

The city's Parks Department estimates it would cost $14,600 to keep the pools open through September, and that the city would earn $4,700 in revenue by doing so.

In addition to swimming pools, Clearwater Beach residents are lobbying the city to extend the operating hours of the Beach Library. They want to add morning hours to the small library, which is open in the afternoons.

The City Council will discuss the budget at a work session Monday and at a public meeting Thursday night. Council members will hold public hearings on the tax rate and budget at 6 p.m. on Sept. 4 and 18.

There's another group who sees a use for that extra money: Clearwater city employees. The proposed budget, as written, has no wage increase for them next year.

"Most of our people make between $25,000 and $30,000 a year," said Steve Sarnoff, president of the local Communications Workers of America, which represents nearly 900 Clearwater employees in departments like libraries, parks and solid waste.

Clearwater employees got 2.5 percent annual raises for the past three years. The CWA is negotiating the union's next contract with the city. The current contract expires Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.

The mayor noted that, after the CWA employees get a new contract, the city must negotiate with its police officers and firefighter/paramedics in the following years. That's one reason he's been careful about committing to expanding pool and library hours.

"You don't want to start it this year and take it away next year. That's not going to make anyone happy," Cretekos said. "There are a lot of moving parts. We're just trying to make sure that the puzzle pieces fit."

Contact Mike Brassfield at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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