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Clearwater budget debate is about more than just dollars

After you've lived in a community for a while, you (hopefully) develop an attachment to it and even a sense of civic pride about it. You are comforted by the familiarity of it, and you want it to thrive because in many ways, your own fortunes are attached to the fortunes of your community.

For almost 25 years, I have listened to Clearwater residents talk about their love for and pride in Clearwater. That doesn't mean they like everything about it — they may complain about the traffic or city politics or too much development — but the irritations don't loom large in their daily lives. They are raising their families there. They are involved in school and church and volunteer work there. They have put down roots.

And there are things about Clearwater that they recognize as special. The exceptional library system. The beach. Beautiful landscaping of public areas. Lots of parks and recreation centers. Well-maintained streets. Safe neighborhoods. A city that is greener and cleaner than it used to be.

So, Clearwater residents, how much do those things matter to you? Your City Council wants to know.

On Thursday, the council had its first debate about the city manager's proposed fiscal 2010 budget, which was released last week. It calls for $6 million in spending cuts, the elimination of 86 positions, the consolidation of city departments, the closing of some facilities — and a very small increase in the tax rate to balance the budget. This Thursday, the City Council will decide what the maximum property tax rate will be next year. Once that number is set, it cannot be increased, only lowered.

After a lengthy presentation full of numbers that presented a bleak picture of city revenues and the need for more budget cuts for the third year in a row, City Council members lapsed into some thoughtful conversation that, at its heart, was about this: What makes up a community? Is it just its people, or is it also its places, its institutions and its quality of life standards? And does it remain the same community if you begin to gut its institutions and change its standards?

Here's an example: More than 20 years ago, Clearwater residents committed their tax dollars to development of an outstanding library system. A main library downtown. Four branch libraries scattered around the city so that no one needed to drive very far to reach one. It became a community ethic, a source of pride. Now, because of declining city revenues, one branch has been shut down and a portion of its collection moved into a recreation center, and the same fate awaits a second branch. The two remaining branches may be combined into one at some point. People are upset.

Clearwater also has prided itself on its network of recreation centers. On Thursday, council members conceded they need to close and tear down an aging recreation center in the Morningside Estates subdivision and cannot build a new one as planned. That leaves the whole southeast quadrant of the city without a recreation center. City officials have warned that, if the economy doesn't pick up soon, other recreation centers may have to be shuttered. Recreation programs that have existed for years are being reduced or eliminated.

The City Council is composed of people who have lived in the city many years and are proud of it. They are struggling with what seems to be a dismantling of things that matter, when the economic problems will not last forever.

"There's a danger, if we don't take a longer look. It's very easy to close things; it's hard to open them," said council member Carlen Petersen. "My concern is if we destroy the heart and soul of the city, we're not going to get it back."

On the other hand, Mayor Frank Hibbard said, how can city officials even think of raising taxes to keep things the way they are when some residents are struggling to keep their homes?

City Manager Bill Horne said that 10 years ago, Clearwater residents seemed to agree on their needs and wants, and a program was launched to sustain and even increase Clearwater's quality of life.

"The community ethic has always been that we are different than everyone else around us," he said. "We're not like Safety Harbor. We're not like Dunedin. We're not like Largo. And that has worked itself into how we have managed the city and how we have spent money in the city.

"Now, that issue is standing right in front of us," he told the City Council. "We're looking at reducing things that go below that community perspective. So where do you want to go? If we're changing that perspective, that's fine, but we need to let the community know that we're going onto a different path and probably a path we will not be able to come back to for years because we'll be divesting ourselves of things that it will be very difficult to add back in."

No matter where you live in North Pinellas, your local government is talking this month about its budget and the dismal economy, and about what your community can afford to maintain and what it can do without. The debate should not just be about dollars; it should also be about what constitutes a community and what makes it a place where you and others want to live. Make sure you get in on the conversation.

Diane Steinle can be reached at dsteinle@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4184.

Clearwater budget debate is about more than just dollars 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 10:17am]

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