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Pinellas County's $40 million shortfall will mean layoffs and program cuts

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County needs to cut spending by 10 percent to solve a $40 million budget deficit for next year, County Administrator Bob LaSala announced Tuesday.

The cuts will mean layoffs, eliminating some programs and shrinking others, LaSala told the County Commission and other countywide officeholders, including Sheriff Jim Coats. County workers should not expect raises in 2010-2011.

"Since there are very few vacancies available in anybody's departments, this is going to cut very sharply and very deeply into services," LaSala said. "I think we all need to be prepared for very, very painful cuts to programs and services that are … thought to be essential."

The deficit is caused by deeper-than-expected property value declines after state-mandated tax cuts. The county now forecasts a 12 percent drop in values instead of a 6 percent drop.

Because values are expected to fall again next year, the budget is expected to have a $70 million deficit in 2011-12 unless more cuts are made.

Last year, the county cut more than $70 million and eliminated 260 workers, hoping to stave off dire cuts this year.

As commissioners debated meeting dates over the next month, LaSala prodded them to act quickly to decide who will bear the cuts between his departments and the countywide elected officials. "We don't have the luxury of waiting many weeks and months to make these decisions," he said.

After a dispute with Coats last year, the board decided not to cut $8 million more. But several members said then — and commission Chairwoman Karen Seel signaled it again Tuesday — that they could cull the money from the sheriff's budget this year if finances darkened.

Coats downplayed any threat of cuts, saying he can find savings and he's optimistic solutions will be found.

But LaSala said he's taken discussions about consolidating operations with Coats to their conclusion. For example, he said, the sheriff doesn't want to give up his own fleet services or take on the county's service.

The 10 percent reduction is absent any increase in the property tax rate or higher fees such as at parks, but commissioners and LaSala said they are options to blunting cuts this year.

"I know how it's going to be portrayed in the media, but I think to maintain a base of services, whether it's park fees or other fees, I think we need to at least look at that side as well as cutting services," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

Commissioners Calvin Harris, Nancy Bostock and Seel also urged furloughs instead of layoffs. LaSala opposed the idea last year because it only delayed cuts.

"That's a temporary fix," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "Our issues are long term."

It's not just the property tax-fed general fund getting the pinch. Sales tax revenue also is down, and EMS and fire district revenues will fall short.

The budget is due to be approved in September. This year's budget is $1.7 billion, including services that don't rely on taxes, such as utilities. But even there, the county projected a 13 percent rate increase is needed next year.

Pinellas County's $40 million shortfall will mean layoffs and program cuts 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 10:13pm]
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