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State budget has a lot of nothing for Hillsborough

TAMPA — There should be less anxiety for Hillsborough County government leaders when Gov. Charlie Crist wields his turkey-busting veto pen this year.

Hillsborough netted little more than a few drainage projects in the spending proposal issued Tuesday by a legislative conference committee.

Instead, government officials will grapple with wholesale cuts on top of property tax reductions approved by voters in January.

"I think all of our constituents will be pleased to know we're going to get the same amount of money for mosquito control," Edith Stewart, public affairs officer for Hillsborough County, noted wryly.

The Legislature set aside $2-million to help pay for the work of the year-old Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, although Crist vetoed startup money for the agency last year. The region also will divide $700,000 with South Florida to study possible rail corridors.

Many other local projects appear dead, with those surviving getting less than hoped.

The county Health Department will have to settle for $4.4-million in construction money instead of $7.4-million requested. Ongoing drainage work for the flood-prone Duck Pond area near the University of South Florida was awarded $400,000 instead of $2-million sought.

The $66.2-billion budget is the lowest in four years. It's a reflection of a steep, steady decline in tax collections that have forced deep cuts in education and human services, the two areas of greatest spending. Legislators will debate the budget today and take a final vote before their scheduled adjournment Friday.

The deepest cuts are in human services: reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes, programs for abused and foster children, adoptions and community care. But other areas will feel the pinch as well.

Hillsborough courts will have at least 15 fewer employees when the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Administrators expect to decide which positions will be eliminated by the end of May, Circuit Judge Manuel Menendez said. One area of concern: The circuit got about half of the money needed to pay for its traffic court officers.

"It's not a pretty picture at all," Menendez said.

Also, legislators didn't fund the five new county judge positions requested for Hillsborough by the Florida Supreme Court.

The state Department of Transportation was planning to spend $254-million on roads, buses and airports in Hillsborough County next fiscal year, including $63-million to widen Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. But it may have to delay some projects.

In the new budget, Hillsborough schools are bracing for budget losses of $22-million, which come on top of statewide education cuts already made this year. The funding places the district at budget levels seen in 2006, which is what officials were expecting.

In their initial estimates, Hills­borough school officials anticipate they will have around $147 less per student in state funding.

"There's going to be some difficult decisions that we are going to have to make," Hillsborough school lobbyist Connie Milito said.

Staff writers Steve Bousquet, Melanie Ave, Mike Brassfield, Colleen Jenkins and Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

State budget has a lot of nothing for Hillsborough 04/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 1:52pm]
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