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Pinellas budget calls for slight spending increase, 94 job cuts

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala wants to increase spending for the first time in four years, but not without cutting 94 jobs.

LaSala unveiled his proposed 2011-12 budget of $1.64 billion on Tuesday, a spending plan that's $25 million above this year's level.

Despite the increase, the budget still underscores the poor economy and the difficult choices ahead. If approved, it would create fees to enter popular parks and raise some property tax rates. The budget process also revealed differences on the County Commission, largely between the new members and the veterans.

Here are some highlights:

The number of Jobs would go down. This would be mostly due to the 85 eliminated by the Sheriff's Office. County officials say they are trying to avoid layoffs by shifting people to vacancies, but they have not guaranteed that all will stay on the payroll. The Sheriff's Office plans no layoffs, however. This is in contrast to the past two years, when the county payroll shed 1,699 jobs. The work force under the county administrator is the lowest since 1985. Under other countywide elected officials and independent agencies, employment is at 1994 levels.

Expect fees and some tax increases. The budget includes $5 fees for motorists to get into Fort De Soto Park or to park near the beach at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. Various fees for animal services would rise by $5. Taxes for emergency medical services and some fire districts would increase; however, the general property tax rate would stay the same. Because property values fell 4.5 percent, the county anticipates it will collect $36 million less in property taxes. That shortfall is what's fueling most of the $21.5 million in cuts this year. Two-thirds of that fell on Sheriff Jim Coats, who hadn't cut as much as the commission wanted the past three years.

Services would be cut. Besides having fewer deputies, the county would cut parks maintenance and county extension programs by $500,000 — even with park fees increasing. Mosquito control and a grant program for nonprofits also face cuts. But the cuts wouldn't be as severe as in years past.

Commissioners wanted more information. Divisions flared on the first day that commissioners saw the proposed budget. Commissioners Neil Brickfield, Nancy Bostock and Norm Roche — all elected in 2008 or later — sought to force department heads to come in front of the board. That way, commissioners could dig into the finer details of the budget.

"I wouldn't expect there to be specific changes. But ultimately, it's our responsibility," Bostock said. The three failed to get the other four commissioners to go along with their idea.

"How do you see that happening — you going to bring in 25 departments?" scoffed Commissioner Ken Welch.

LaSala was skeptical of going through an itemized review of spending, down to a $6,000 travel budget increase for animal services. But the board will get to ask detailed questions about the budget starting next Tuesday. "I'm too far along in my career to take this personally," LaSala said.

Spending is up, but only slightly. Almost all of it can be attributed to the new public safety complex. Almost $46 million of its $81 million cost will be budgeted for 2011-2012. The overall spending plan still is about $360 million below 2008's, before the recession and forced tax reductions deflated finances.

There is money to spare. The county will have an $86.9 million reserve for emergencies and other unexpected costs, essentially 16 percent of the operating budget. But there's also $28.5 million set aside to ease future cuts. While the county projects a $7 million shortfall for 2012-13, it's possible for the board to tap some of that money now to ease cuts in the coming year.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter with @DeCampTimes.

Social service cut sparks backlash

Social service agencies and supporters chastised Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala's plan to kill a grant program, and they found allies on the Pinellas County Commission.

At least four of the seven commissioners — Neil Brickfield, John Morroni, Norm Roche and Ken Welch — have come out against eliminating the $360,000 program, which helps pay for Meals on Wheels and other services. The program "is a small investment that returns larger benefits to our communities and our county," Roche said in e-mails responding to residents who complained. The reduction is part of LaSala's proposed budget. Officials said the program is too complex to handle with so few staffers.

Pinellas budget calls for slight spending increase, 94 job cuts 07/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 7:51am]
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