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Tarpon Springs' prudent decade of saving is paying off now

TARPON SPRINGS — There are no discussions of slashing library services.

The city doesn't have a huge shortfall of cash and there's no looming debt.

And as Tarpon Springs turns a spotlight to the upcoming budget process, officials are praising the efforts of former City Manager Ellen Posivach, who nearly 10 years ago led the city to start putting away money for those really rainy days.

The main goal then was to have enough cash to keep the city running for six months in the case of a natural disaster.

"We started mapping out a strategic plan, and the credit really goes to Ellen Posivach, who started holding back, cutting positions and cross training; and during those years, we reduced ad valorem taxes four times," said Mayor Beverley Billiris. "It turns out that it wasn't a hurricane, it was the recession.

"Now cities are laying off 20 and 30 people and we are not. We are in better shape than most cities in Pinellas County. We are very fortunate to have the reserve we have."

A decline in property values, the passage of Amendment I and a tanked national economy has forced many municipalities to look for ways to cut costs. Most cities have been forced into layoffs or reduced city services.

But Tarpon Springs has turned to its robust reserve fund instead to level off its needs.

The city is required to have a reserve fund that is 20 percent of its nearly $20 million operating budget. Tarpon Springs boasts a reserve fund that's 44 percent of the amount, about $8.7 million. To balance the budget in the current fiscal year, the city pulled about $1 million from its reserve fund. Officials could use more in the upcoming budget.

Posivach is gone — she resigned after losing commission support over her management style last spring — but the principles she pushed remain.

"We were not reckless in spending money and building an empire," said Arie Walker, the city's finance director. "That's why our reserve is as high as it is. … We are just very conservative."

When the city found a reduction in expenses, it sent those savings to its reserve fund. Tarpon Springs has no outstanding debt in the general fund.

In addition, for the past five or six years, department heads were not allowed to increase their budget requests on costs they could control.

"The idea was to be able to have enough money so when we are going through (rough) times, we would not have to cut services," Walker said. "We hope we can ride out this tough economic downturn."

To help with the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, City Manager Mark LeCouris asked department heads to dig deeper into the budgets.

By eliminating vacant positions, reducing office supply needs and travel, department heads found another $1.3 million in savings.

A draft of next's year budget will be presented to commissioners and the public July 10. In the meantime, the city formed a citizens budget advisory committee to look at all aspects of its budgets.

"It's really a good thing," said Townsend Tarapani, chairman of the advisory committee. "We will be able to provide additional insight to the City Commission on budgetary issues, city revenue, expenditures and overall profitability and wealth of the city as a whole."

It took Commissioner Chris Alahouzos four attempts to get his fellow commissioners to agree to a citizen budgetary committee.

"It's more critical now than it's ever been," Alahouzos said. "This is another tool to help the commission to find ways to better spend residents' money."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

What's next

A draft budget for fiscal year 2009-10 will be available to commissioners and residents July 10.

The Citizens Budget Advisory Committee meets at 2 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 324 East Pine St.

Tarpon Springs' prudent decade of saving is paying off now 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 8:49pm]
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