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Economic crisis forces Clearwater officials to rethink spending habits

It is difficult to find anything good in such a serious economic downturn, but the creative thinking it is forcing upon local elected officials who make spending decisions is one positive. Old assumptions, old habits and a certain nonchalance inspired by years of flush revenues have been supplanted by officials' sweating over budgets and getting out their calculators to check and recheck their math.

Thursday's special meeting of the Clearwater City Council provided a good illustration. Clearwater faces a shortfall of $7 million to $13 million in its 2009-2010 operating fund budget because of declines in all of its revenue streams. But the city also has to trim $20 million from its Penny for Pinellas project list, and that was the task that inspired Thursday's discussion.

When city officials had talked earlier about ways to reduce their operating fund shortfall, they learned that Clearwater residents don't like losing services. Imagine the officials' discomfort, then, with cutting projects from the Penny for Pinellas list.

Pinellas voters approved the 2010-2020 Penny sales tax in 2007 based on project lists promoted by government officials. That was, of course, before the economy collapsed. Not only are the sales tax projections that were used in 2007 way off, but local governments also are desperately seeking ways to maintain hours at rec centers and libraries and keep police on the beat. Officials know that if Penny money can be used to fund some projects previously expected to be paid for with general operating dollars, budget pressures will be eased.

So on Thursday, council members talked about using Penny money to replace police cars and fire trucks — something that wouldn't have been contemplated in the past.

They gave a thumbs down to a promised aquatic center and water park for the influential Countryside area because it was just too expensive, though they retained some Penny dollars in the budget for other possible projects in Countryside, where residents complain they haven't received their fair share.

Council members also talked about whether to cancel construction of a new recreation center in the Morningside area, which has long been promised a new center. They will meet with Morningside residents next month before making a final decision.

They announced that neighborhoods should not expect any more extravagant traffic calming projects with roundabouts and landscaping, though such projects score political points for elected officials. Neighborhoods will have to make do with stop signs and speed tables, which seem to be working just fine anyway, said City Manager Bill Horne.

The Penny list had included millions for a new City Hall to replace the existing one, which is sinking, has other expensive problems and occupies potentially valuable waterfront land. But City Council members said a new building probably isn't in the cards, so the city staff is studying alternatives, such as moving city offices onto upper floors of the Main Library, which doesn't have enough staff for the entire building anyway.

Looking to cut costs, the council is contemplating closing two of Clearwater's five libraries, the crowded East and Countryside branches, and consolidating them into a new building in a city park at the intersection of Enterprise Road and Countryside Boulevard. City officials believe one building would be more efficient than two, and they could sell the surplus properties to help recover the cost of building the new facility.

However, City Hall already is getting backlash from library lovers who don't want to lose the East branch. That prompted council member Carlen Petersen to wonder whether a .25 mill tax increase that city residents supported in 1985 to help expand the library system could now be specifically dedicated to keeping all branches open.

While there was plenty of creative thinking like that on display Thursday, there also were indications of how old habits die hard. Clearwater prides itself on building first-class public facilities, which means that it tends not to consider minimalist approaches. So you didn't hear, at least at Thursday's meeting, discussion about an alternative rec center without all the bells and whistles (and staff) for Morningside instead of building nothing at all. No one wondered aloud why land would have to be purchased and $6 million spent to put a water park in Countryside or there could be no water park at all. Dunedin and Oldsmar, for example, are spending far less for popular zero-depth splash grounds in city parks.

It isn't easy to break old habits and find ways to do more with less, but just as families and businesses are meeting that challenge, so, too, can government.

Diane Steinle can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

Economic crisis forces Clearwater officials to rethink spending habits 03/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 14, 2009 12:12pm]
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