St. Pete Beach City Commission butts heads over budget tactics

ST. PETE BEACH — With one quarter of the fiscal year gone, the city is slightly in the red and must keep a careful eye on spending and revenues throughout the rest of the year.

That was the message City Manager Mike Bonfield and Finance Director Elaine Trehy gave the City Commission last week.

Commissioner Linda Chaney, however, wanted the city to immediately begin cutting expenses — a stance that led to a sharp confrontation with Bonfield and some of the other commissioners.

"People are cutting back in their budgets everywhere and we need to be cutting back as well," Chaney said.

Commissioner Al Halpern cautioned that moving money around this early would be "a very dangerous thing."

Chaney called for elimination of take-home cars, city-sponsored professional memberships, and general belt tightening.

"Raises are not a luxury we can afford now," she said, also suggesting a hiring freeze.

Bonfield warned that by not waiting for recommendations from the city's professional staff, Chaney was "getting very close to crossing the line" by interfering with management of the city.

"We just need to be careful," Bonfield said. "This isn't something that is any more of a crisis today than it was a year ago or 18 months ago."

He was also upset over how Chaney's suggestions affect city staff. "I would hope you would just realize the implications these kinds of discussions have on an organization," he said.

"I did not mean to get you in a combative mode. I just want to make the point that it is not business as usual any more," Chaney replied.

"Believe me, laying off 18 people in the last year is not business as usual," Bonfield said.

What prompted the exchange was Trehy's report, which showed that if current revenue and spending patterns continue, the city will be in arrears by about $41,000 by the end of the year.

Franchise and utility taxes and other revenues are now projected to be about $161,400 short of original estimates. This shortfall is offset, Trehy said, by an expected $120,000 reduction in expenses.

The major unknown, Trehy said, is the city's legal expenses. The city budgeted $200,000 to cover lawsuit costs, but this amount could be exceeded by about $100,000 if current billing rates continue.

The city's finances are expected to be a major part of the commission's discussion Wednesday, when it meets at 6:30 p.m. for a special workshop to develop short- and long-range business-style plans for the city.

St. Pete Beach City Commission butts heads over budget tactics 02/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 3:31am]

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