It's a matter of simple math. Local governments are no longer collecting enough property tax revenue to cover the services they have traditionally provided. But as city managers across Pinellas County and the county administrator have begun offering solutions to balance next year's budgets, they are getting shot down by the elected officials who will have the final say on the budgets and tax rates this summer.
It happened to St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster last week when he announced he wanted to close several of the city's nine pools to save $1.5 million and convert others to water parks that might attract crowds willing to pay $8 for two hours of swim time.
He got dunked.
City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran called the water park idea "ridiculous," and most council members said they wouldn't even consider closing pools or raising swim fees. They left Foster alone in the deep end to ponder how to eliminate a $12 million gap in the 2011 budget if he can't even close a swimming pool.
Something similar happened to County Administrator Bob LaSala last week. To help narrow predicted budget deficits of $40 million in both 2011 and 2012, LaSala proposed entrance fees for county parks: $8 a carload for Fort De Soto Park, which is what's charged at state parks, and $5 for other large county parks and preserves, including Sawgrass, Chesnut, Philippe, Eagle Lake, Weedon Island, Brooker Creek and Heritage Village. Under LaSala's proposal, the estimated $3.5 million raised from the fees would go into the county's general fund to help pay for general services.
But one county commissioner declared that $8 to get into a county park was "outrageous." A majority of commissioners said they wouldn't go any higher than $5 for Fort De Soto and $3 for other parks. And they wanted the fees "means tested," so low-income people could get in for less. And they might want a senior citizen discount, too. And all the money collected should go back into the parks, not be spent for other services, they said.
That blew a hole in LaSala's idea of using the fees to help reduce his overall budget shortfall. Now he's recalculating how much the smaller fees would raise. No matter how much it is, he warned, it still won't save the parks from being closed two days a week.
Are elected officials in St. Petersburg and the county naive about the size of the cuts they will have to make to balance their budgets? Are they not tough enough to make the hard decisions?
LaSala believes instead that his commissioners were viewing the park fee idea "in isolation," because they won't see his 2011 budget until mid July. He figures that is when they will see the true size of the problem. For now LaSala, and Foster as well, are just rolling out some of their most controversial ideas for cutting costs or raising revenue, testing the tolerance of elected officials and the public.
The reactions last week may indicate that after three previous years of budget reductions, the cuts finally have hit the elected officials' pain thresholds. It isn't so hard to cut positions that are vacant or programs that have few supporters. But if you must put someone out of work, or padlock a popular rec center, or shutter a library, or charge so much to swim in a city pool that children are turned away, that really hurts.
We expect our local governments to provide those amenities, along with essentials like water, sewer, firefighters and police. What happens when they can't afford it anymore, or when only those who can pay fees are granted access to services?
User fees like those proposed for parks and pools will not solve this government funding crisis. An inevitable question looms for local elected officials: When should they stop cutting services and programs and jobs, and instead raise taxes? That may be the most painful decision of all.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.