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Special tax districts hurt, too

At the Palm Harbor library, none of the choices are easy.

Director Gene Coppola can hold on to four vacancies for part-time workers. He can trim two full-time jobs from the staff. He will undoubtedly shorten business hours.

"There will be less books, less DVDs, less programming," he said. "And there will be fewer services we can offer."

Funded by its own taxing district, the 32-year-old library is caught in the same downward spiral of dwindling property tax revenue that has afflicted larger government institutions.

Think of it as a microcosm of local governments throughout Tampa Bay, which had to adjust to state-mandated property tax relief in 2007, followed by a collapse in home values that meant even less in tax receipts.

The Children's Board of Hillsborough County has less money to pay its providers, some of which are also seeing reductions in funding from the state. Pasco County's library budget is two-thirds of what it used to be. "Our libraries were starting to win national awards," Pasco management and budget director Michael Nurrenbrock said.

The Palm Harbor library was able to use reserve funds for a while, but no more, Coppola said. He predicts severe cuts in spending that will affect everything from next summer's children's program to the availability of librarians.

"People might have to wait on line longer just to get their items checked out," he said.

Less money comes in

How far is bottom? Pinellas County's 2010 tax roll estimate showed real estate values down 13 percent for the year, with residential market values down 43 percent since 2008. New construction was valued at less than $175 million, the lowest total in a decade.

In Pasco, Nurrenbrock estimates revenue reductions of the past four years wiped out 14 years of net gains from growth. Hernando County, rocked hard by unemployment, is looking at a $10.4 million budget deficit this year, about $2 million more than last year's deficit.

Parks and library programs are on the chopping block virtually everywhere. Tampa families are suffering sticker shock over skyrocketing summer camp prices. Hundreds of jobs will disappear this year in the Hillsborough County government.

As counties and cities try to figure out how to govern with less, the same holds true for the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board and the Pinellas Planning Council, funded with its own tax district.

The planning council updates the county's comprehensive plan and coordinates planning efforts among Pinellas' 24 cities.

A revenue stream that was once $1.4 million a year has shrunk to $770,000, said director David Healey, and there are now four planners instead of six.

"We've tried to maintain our core functions," Healey said. "But we're clearly not keeping up with our long-range planning the way we would like to be able to."

The agency also has had to cut off the assistance it used to give to small communities with no planning staff.

"It becomes more of a housekeeping operation, trying to maintain what you have," Healey said.

Staffs down, trims up

Tougher choices exist for the similarly funded Juvenile Welfare Board in Pinellas and Children's Board in Hillsborough, which serve children and families in need. Lisa Sahulka, director of contract management and finance for the Pinellas agency, described some of the board discussions as "Solomonlike."

As tax revenue has dropped from $57 million to $44.5 million a year, her staff has shrunk from 66 to 51. The board put some of its local revenue into a program stabilization fund to cushion against shortfalls, she said.

To do so, it's had to rely on state funding to maintain services to existing clients, instead of expanding their outreach. And it doesn't help that the money in their accounts is earning record-low interest.

Among the unfortunate consequences, Sahulka said, the board can no longer give its providers bonuses to cover cost-of-living increases, such as the rising price of health insurance.

"We have cut everything we could cut, and now we are cutting into the bone," Sahulka said. "And I think anybody, in any program, will say the same thing."

Hillsborough's tax-supported children's board has seen its revenue drop 3 to 4 percent each year. By 2014, spokesman Dan Casseday said, the agency will have seen a 17 percent decrease.

Managers have taken pay cuts, instituted staff furloughs and eliminated all unnecessary travel.

"We, like everybody else, are trying to be good stewards of county funds," Casseday said, "while still providing services at the best level possible at this time."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Special tax districts hurt, too 06/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 7:42am]
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