Pinellas commissioners hear ideas on how to save $60 million

PALM HARBOR — Norm Atherton has one suggestion for how the seven members of the Pinellas County Commission can cut spending to solve a budget shortfall in 2011.

Cut back to five commissioners, the Palm Harbor resident told them Wednesday night at a public forum at Palm Harbor University High School.

While that's more likely to draw smiles than to happen — the county charter has called for seven since 1999 — Atherton, 71, did have another suggestion. Charge $5 to enter parks, notably Fort De Soto Park, so county parks and natural lands can be maintained.

"If it takes a $5 dollar fee to do it, so be it," Atherton said, acknowledging he doesn't relish the budget-cutting decision ahead for a board doing "a good job."

The county plans to cut $60 million to balance its 2011 budget because of falling tax revenue, notably property taxes.

It's a 15 percent reduction, although some departments, such as engineers in the utilities and public works agencies, face deeper cuts and consolidation.

Besides fees, another option being reviewed is to close all county parks except Fort De Soto two days each week. Assistant county administrator Mark Woodard said park use is lowest on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The Parks Department has been asked to cut $3.3 million — roughly enough to cull a third of the staff of culture, education and leisure director Paul Cozzie. However, county officials want the County Commission to approve the $5 entrance fee at Fort De Soto Park to ease the cut.

The meeting was the first of three public forums in Pinellas in addition to an online session March 15. County Administrator Bob LaSala told the audience of nearly 100 that Pinellas needs priorities and ideas where to trim.

Tom West, 60, a retired highway crew chief from Clearwater, offered one place for cuts: middle management. Used to be, work assignments went through only a handful of people, but now the number of people reviewing and inspecting projects has doubled.

"We used to have a supervisor for 40 people, now it's a third of that," West said.

LaSala has said he wants to flatten the county management, but also notes the county has the smallest work force under the county administrator since 1988. He has not estimated how many layoffs could occur, saying it is too early to begin counting.

LaSala will unveil the proposed budget in July, and it will be approved in September.

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

Pinellas commissioners hear ideas on how to save $60 million 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 9:51pm]

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