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Hard choices this week as Hillsborough commissioners try to balance books

BY BILL VARIAN

Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — It has been nearly two months since Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean unveiled her budget for the next two years. The headline: Roughly $140 million in proposed spending cuts and more than 1,000 jobs lost.

Bean's spending proposal would lop programs from the parks system to the morgue.

But many of the planned cuts have yet to get a full vetting from commissioners, who make the final decisions. They have been dealing instead with the fallout of large raises Bean gave to her top deputies late last year as the economy was in free fall.

Commissioners are scheduled for one more session Wednesday before they are supposed to tentatively balance the budget the following day. Here's what they've done so far, as well as cuts to county services that haven't been discussed much or at all.

Discussed

Parks: Facing nearly $12 million in cuts next year alone, county parks have gotten much of the early attention from commissioners and the public. Once again, Bean has proposed to eliminate afterv school programs and commissioners are essentially saying that won't happen.

Status: Unresolved. Parks staff is looking at ways to use more part-time workers, tap federal voucher money for less affluent families and increase fees for others.

Parks, Part II: Bean's proposal would also shut down regional parks two days a week starting in October and four days a week in 2011. Think Flatwoods, Edward Medard, E.G. Simmons, Upper Tampa Bay, and Lettuce Lake parks, among others. The public has awakened to this and commissioners have said this is a non-starter.

Status: Staff is working with volunteer groups who may help man parks, as well as charging entrance fees at sites that are currently free and increasing camping and other fees at locations that now charge.

Parks, Part III

Eliminating therapeutic programs for children with special needs at All People's Life Center and Bakas Equestrian Center, as well as the BlazeSports athletic program for children with disabilities in 2011.

Status: The public is starting to voice concerns. Staff will look for ways over the next year to preserve the program.

Animal Services

Bean's budget proposes getting rid of nearly 20 positions, largely eliminating response to nuisance animal complaints and opening the shelter five days a week instead of six.

Status: In response to protests by animal support groups, staff is proposing to increase registration fees by $10 (to $20 for sterilized animals, $40 for unsterilized) and hiking shelter fees by $4 daily (from $8). Staff hopes this will let them keep the shelter open a sixth day and have some nuisance animal response.

Victim's Advocate

The budget would eliminate this office, whose employees help crime victims and their families navigate the criminal justice system.

Status: Commissioners have asked the staff to look for ways to preserve at least part of the program.

Child care licensing

The county took over licensing, inspecting and investigating complaints at day care centers from the state years ago, saying the state was nowhere near as thorough as needed. Bean would turn that responsibility back over to the state.

Status: Perhaps surprisingly, day care center owners and associations have rallied to save the program, volunteering to accept higher fees. This should result in preserving the program in some fashion.

Less attention

Consumer Protection

This entire department is facing elimination based on the argument that it replicates a state responsibility. The fact is the county offers much more robust investigations of shady contractors, fraud and abuse of residential renters, among other misdeeds.

Status: Commissioner Rose Ferlita has flagged this item for further discussion, hoping to preserve some of it, but there has been no talk of how to pay for it.

Medical Examiner

The office would lose two of its six doctors and several other employees under Bean's proposal. Hundreds of autopsies a year would have to be eliminated, primarily in cases where they are not required by law. Medical Examiner Dr. Vernard Adams says the proposed cuts would place him and his staff in jeopardy of facing discipline from the agency that sets standards for autopsies and would likely cause remaining staff to leave.

Status: No major discussion yet

Code Enforcement

Nearly a quarter of the department staff, already scaled back this year, faces elimination. The cuts would mostly affect front-line employees. The department director says that will likely slow resolution of cases and make his department more reactive to complaints rather than proactive in locating problems. That seems a rosy projection since commissioners had beefed up the department in recent years due to slow response to complaints. And more properties are falling into neglect or disrepair.

Status: Commissioners have raised no major objections.

Planning and Environmental Protection commissions

Both departments would see their budgets slashed by as much as 35 percent over the next two years. This would appear to mean that they have to stop performing some tasks, such as community planning.

Status: Staff is looking at some consolidation, may seek to lessen cuts, but the topic has not been hot with this commissioners.

Aging Services

More than 30 jobs will be eliminated, mainly for in-home services and case management for homebound or frail, elderly residents. There's more to come in 2011, with drastic reductions in the number of people served.

Status: Commissioners raised few questions during a workshop last week.

Community Liaison

This small department provides points of contact for people in the Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American and disabled communities who are interacting with county government. Bean proposes making the three race-based positions part time, and eliminating a support worker.

Status: Residents have rallied around the Hispanic liaison in particular ,and commissioners have flagged the program for further discussion.

This is just some of what is slated to get cut. To see the full budget, go to www.hillsboroughcounty.org and follow the links to the county budget document. Pages 31-39 highlight program and position cuts.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hard choices this week as Hillsborough commissioners try to balance books 07/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 27, 2009 8:57pm]

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