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Steeper drop in property values create more budget woes in Hillsborough

TAMPA — The ongoing financial crunch is likely to get worse for local governments in Hillsborough County due to steeper than expected declines in property values.

The Hillsborough County Property Appraiser had previously projected that values would fall 7 to 10 percent this year, based on state forecasts.

An initial analysis of sales data leading up to Jan. 1 indicates that the decline could actually be 10 to 12 percent and possibly worse, said Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the property appraiser.

State law requires the property appraiser to provide an estimate of values to local governments by June 1. Many of those governments are already preparing for cuts.

"We thought it was a good idea to let them know as early as possible that it is probably going to be worse than we thought," Wilmath said.

County budget chief Eric Johnson said a reduction of 8.5 percent to 9.5 percent was already planned. The new information, though, means there's more budget trimming to do.

"We have at a minimum a $7 million loss of revenue from what we had planned for next year. That's the best-case scenario," he said. "Our worst-case scenario is almost $20 million."

Johnson said he has asked departments to see where they can save money.

"The focus has been how do we drive down the cost of doing business and that's what we need to continue to do while retaining as many services as we possibly can," he said. "My sense is we're not facing anything that most businesses in town aren't also facing, so there's no complaining."

City officials say the new figures from the property appraiser add $3.5 million to the expected $10 million drop in property tax revenue.

Altogether, the city needs to cut about $33 million to balance its 2011 budget. Mayor Pam Iorio has asked all departments to roll back their spending to 2009 levels.

She also recently announced a reorganization that will eliminate 32 jobs and save $3 million.

She has asked the Tampa City Council to consider privatizing operations of four city warehouses, which would save $3 million and eliminate 24 jobs.

An additional 10 to 15 jobs will be cut as the city saves $1 million by consolidating its fiscal and accounting operations.

County commissioners were forced to trim their main operating budget of nearly $1.2 billion by $120 million last year. That budget, which covers things such as salaries for sheriff's deputies and park workers, is where most property tax money flows.

Because Hillsborough commissioners approve their budget in two-year cycles, they already have tentatively agreed to cut $50 million in spending this year due to previously projected declines in property values.

The board, however, had planned to spend much of the summer tinkering with their initial cuts — which hit areas like parks and programs for the elderly hard — in an effort to minimize cuts in service.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the further decline in revenue will allow the board to focus on a major overhaul to the way the county serves residents — something he has been pushing.

That means identifying programs that the county needs to stop providing and figuring out ways to forge partnerships with others — such as nonprofits or other governments — to get the job done.

"We're not empire building anymore," Sharpe said.

County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said there are a few areas he'd like to address, including finding ways to limit overtime pay for county employees and looking to privatize some services.

"What I will be asking is, 'Are there areas where we could appropriately and properly privatize?' " Higginbotham said. "I intend to request some time at an upcoming commission meeting to have a board discussion on what are our core services."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Steeper drop in property values create more budget woes in Hillsborough 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 11:12pm]
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