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An $85 million budget diet would hurt all of Pinellas County

How would Pinellas County government look if it went on an $85 million diet? At the end, would residents even be able to see that county government had shed pounds?

They certainly could see the diet's result at Pinellas County Animal Services, where proposed cuts of $817,000 and 13 jobs would mean animals previously kept for 10 days before being euthanized would be held five days at most. If you lost your dog or cat, you would need to run, not walk, to check Animal Services.

Residents also could see the result of that $85 million diet if they wanted to cut down a tree in their yard. Getting a tree removal permit, which now takes two days, would take up to 10 days because 22 people would be cut from the department that handles those permits.

Visitors could see the diet's result at Heritage Village, where a proposed budget cut of 48 percent, or $440,000, would mean canceling camps and many other programs and closing the gates two days a week. An admission fee might be charged in the future, too.

Parents who scheduled their child's birthday party at a county park picnic shelter might find the tables a little nasty — picnic tables and bathrooms would be scrubbed less often because the Parks and Recreation Department faces a 24 percent budget cut and the loss of 49 positions. Want to complain to a park ranger? Good luck finding one. Rangers would have three or four parks to patrol rather than one.

Those who like to go night fishing at Fort De Soto Park's fishing piers would see the result. The piers, now open all night, would close at 11 p.m.

Neighborhoods waiting for traffic calming projects would wait longer, because the county would do only two a year rather than seven. Motorists would see a difference driving around the county. The grass on county properties would be allowed to grow longer, but residents would be asked to cut the grass on county-owned right of way in front of their homes.

Just as the diet would affect all levels of government from top to bottom, the impact would be felt at all levels of society. County funding for a night medical van for the poor, for the Pinellas Hope homeless center and for hospital care for the indigent would be slashed.

The proposed cuts went on for 51 pages when County Administrator Bob LaSala unveiled them at a recent County Commission meeting (go to www.pinellascounty.org/budget to view more details). The county must resolve an $85 million shortfall in its $547 million operating budget for the budget year 2009-10, which starts Oct. 1. This is the third year the county has been forced to make cuts because of state-mandated revenue caps on local governments, Florida voters' approval of Amendment 1, falling tax collections and a faltering economy.

The first two years, the trims were accomplished easily by cutting vacant positions and seldom-used programs. But LaSala uses the word "horrific" to describe the situation confronting the county this year. In a document still in flux, he suggests eliminating 367 positions (most of them occupied) from the departments under his control. Hundreds more employees could be cut by the county's constitutional officers and independent agencies, which will discuss their plans with the County Commission on Tuesday. Suggested cuts would put county staffing back to 1988 levels.

On Wednesday, LaSala will show commissioners his ideas for cuts to the county's capital improvement budget, which is separate from the operating budget. Commissioners make the final budget decisions.

Before 2007, when times were good and cash was plentiful, Pinellas County used some of its revenues to add services and facilities and act more like a city government. Some residents considered that bloat; others enjoyed the improved quality of life and are telling commissioners not to cut those services. But the cash spigot is off, the cuts are into the quick, and there is no sign yet that the economy will be better next year.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

An $85 million budget diet would hurt all of Pinellas County 06/06/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 12:15pm]
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