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Pinellas administrator's two-year squeeze on budget pops loose

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala's aggressive approach to balancing the budget is being softened by his own County Commission.

Because of the recession, LaSala had pressed to make extra cuts this year so the reductions in 2012 would be easier. The county faces an $80 million deficit over the next two years, and LaSala was hoping to cut $60 million this year.

But three months after the board endorsed that plan, the commission has gravitated toward a weaker approach for the second year in a row.

"I'm not going to bring forward another two-year program to the board," LaSala said last week, standing in the hallway of the commissioners' offices after a daylong meeting. "When the horse dumps you … get off."

The commission was split 4-3 when it agreed Feb. 2 to seek the $60 million in cuts now. The biggest share, $29.7 million, was to come from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The slim majority fractured after Sheriff Jim Coats' proposed budget came in $9.6 million short of the goal. His proposals cover only his agency's proportional share of the 2011 deficit, not the 2012 reductions.

"I don't think there's a complete buy-in on the fact that we're not at the bottom" of the downturn, said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who supported a $60 million target but said she learned last week the sheriff needs time for deeper cuts.

While she didn't fault LaSala, she said the totality of the cuts must be considered, echoing other members.

"I like the concept of doing $60 million this year, but how disruptive is it to the organization? Can it be done? … Nobody wants to go war."

Despite projections that property tax revenue will drop again for 2012, other commissioners are stepping back, too.

"I think there's a big reluctance on the part of the commissioners to press for more cuts … because it affects how law enforcement officers are deployed," said Commissioner Nancy Bostock, another member who favored making more cuts now.

The board still has four months to decide how deep to cut, and commissioners may be more willing to accept deeper cuts when they see the proposed budget in July, LaSala said.

But the commissioners' current approach is turning it into a more expensive replay of last summer, when the board allowed Coats to come in $7.8 million under his goal.

Other constitutional officeholders — the clerk, tax collector, supervisor of elections — also came in below budget-cutting targets, arguing that legal mandates prevent them from further cuts. It's uncertain, if not doubtful, that commissioners will require them to meet their goals.

Commissioner Calvin Harris, who argued for fewer cuts, has said delaying $20 million in cuts would give workers who face layoff six more months of work. Commissioners Karen Seel and John Morroni also opposed cutting more than $40 million this year.

Meanwhile, the departments that LaSala controls are due to hit their targets, a combined $21 million that will affect services like street repair, health care and code enforcement.

"I can tell you under the county administrator, the departments are going to meet those goals," LaSala said.

Other differences are brewing between the board and LaSala.

Even though the commission backed fees of $5 per car to enter Fort De Soto Park and $3 at regional parks, it wasn't everything that LaSala sought.

He asked for $8 a car at Fort De Soto — a jump Commissioner Neil Brickfield called outrageous.

LaSala also wanted to be able to use the new revenue outside the parks system, which the board quashed as it heard his proposal to close 13 parks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

On Friday, as e-mails blasting the fees reached commissioners, Latvala and Bostock said the board might have to re-examine new fees and closures. At least, Bostock said, they should consider staggering the closed days so all regional parks aren't locked up at the same time.

"Everything's a work in progress," Brickfield said, telling a reporter, "You know more than I know right now. … They're sifting through those menu of choices to get them there."

But for every dime the sheriff and other officeholders are spared, LaSala's departments could be forced to make up. And cuts put off this year could be more expensive and difficult next year.

"Does everyone in the game fully understand that? I don't know yet that the community, staff, all the commissioners and elected officials do," LaSala said. "There's finite resources. If you squeeze the balloon on one end, it pops up somewhere else."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas administrator's two-year squeeze on budget pops loose 05/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 17, 2010 11:27pm]
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