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Stress levels rise as local officials sharpen budget knives

$9.2 million The amount Clearwater has to trim from its budget.

$55 million The amount Pinellas County has to ax from its $550-million budget.

$2.3 million

The amount Dunedin has to cut from its budget.

$25.8 million The amount Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats was asked to cut from his budget.

$17 million

The amount Tampa has to slash from its budget. The city cut 123 jobs last year.

$2.5 billion

The shortfall in the state budget.

As government officials across the Tampa Bay area struggle to deal with massive budget cuts and the possibility of layoffs, the strain is beginning to show.

Some local officials admit they're frustrated, and there have been reports of bureaucrats squabbling, sniping and questioning each other's motives.

In Clearwater, City Manager Bill Horne released an e-mail this week under the subject line "stress marks are showing." In it, Horne questioned whether city leaders are "losing our professional edge."

"It appears that the stress of work over the past several years combined with the impact of tax reform on our government and changing council dynamics is adversely affecting us," Horne wrote. "Our response to this stress is causing us to turn our frustrations on each other."

Leaders are finding themselves rushing to squelch rumors and soothing employees demoralized by the prospect of losing their jobs.

" 'Anxiety' is a key word," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "Folks are concerned about how they are going to put food on the table and provide for their families. We are talking about laying off real people, not vacant positions, but real people."

Because of the slow economy and the recent passage of Amendment 1, the statewide initiative to cut property taxes, local governments across Florida are looking at drastically smaller budgets this year.

In Clearwater, that means trimming $9.2-million.

"It's stressful, it's frustrating and the decision the (department heads) will make will have impact on some of their employees," Horne said. "I wouldn't call it the perfect storm, but it's close to it."

Horne said he's noticed increased verbal sparring over the past six months, so he sent the e-mail to encourage officials to stay "focused on our mission" and "to remain hopeful."

Horne said he's heard from colleagues in other localities that the budget crunch is sending similar shock waves through their governments.

"When we get together as managers, it's safe to say the kind of stress our guys are going through is being felt in other organizations as well, because we're all trying to find savings," he said.

In Pinellas County, where officials need to ax $55-million from their $550-million budget, rumors are spreading to the very top of the organizational chart.

A few weeks ago, interim County Administrator Fred Marquis called Sheriff Jim Coats and said he heard Coats was planning to appeal his budget to the state.

Coats is being asked by county officials to trim $25.8-million from his budget, but as a constitutional officer, he could decide not to comply and ask the governor for protection.

"I said that's absolutely not true," Coats said. "I'm a team player, and I'm working with the commissioners."

Largo City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig said there's been no sniping between his department heads as they work to cut $3-million and move workers into jobs frozen earlier this year.

But that doesn't mean his employees are immune to anxiety.

"There's stress from the standpoint that no one wants to see someone lose jobs, but we had nothing to do with this — these are mandated," Craig said.

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi said he's frustrated because the cuts killed his department's five-year plan to add 12 officers. Now, not only will he not get those officers, but he's forced to shave two other positions through attrition.

"No bones about it, I think all department directors are feeling a great deal of stress," Aradi said. "But we meet almost weekly to try to problem solve this thing as a group."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio also is emphasizing communication. She hosted several meetings with the city's 2,000 employees in February to soothe jangled nerves and talk about the budget.

Last year, city leaders cut 123 jobs. This year, they need to slash $17-million.

"I wanted them to hear directly from me what was happening," Iorio said. "There are always a lot of rumors. They hear this, they hear that. They're not sure what to believe."

At the Capitol in Tallahassee, where legislators are struggling to cope with a $2.5-billion shortfall in revenue without raising taxes, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said leaders received a mandate from the voters and getting upset about it is counterproductive.

"You have to deal with the situation because we didn't get elected to complain," he said. "We got elected to do our jobs."

Smaller cities are struggling as well. Dunedin City Manager Rob DiSpirito said the cutbacks — $2.3-million for his city — are "like a grim realism that we've got to deal with."

DiSpirito added, "I haven't sensed complete desperation on anyone's part, but nobody enjoys this."

Times reporters Will Van Sant, Cristina Silva and Janet Zink contributed to this story.

Stress levels rise as local officials sharpen budget knives 04/10/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 1:49pm]
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