Starting immediately after the Labor Day weekend, local governments in Pinellas will begin holding the final public hearings on their 2008-2009 budgets, which take effect Oct. 1.
It has been a gruesome budget season for elected officials in Pinellas communities, with the voters' call for lower taxes and falling property values delivering a double whammy to government revenues. Government workers have lost their jobs, programs have been cut and residents who don't earn enough to survive on their own have found government's helping hand pulled back.
As bad as this local budget season has been, some experts predict an even worse one in 2009, at least here in Florida, where a quick turnaround in the state economy is not expected. Those predictions have sent a chill through elected officials, who wonder what traditional government structures and services they will have to demolish next year — and what, if anything, they can do to lessen the blow.
That sort of worry is the impetus for reconsidering consolidation of fire services in Pinellas County. A few years ago, mere talk of fire department consolidation by a county charter review commission created a virtual flashover among fire officials. The idea was dropped like a hot potato. But now, even fire officials concede that consolidation may be the best way to survive and thrive in this new economy. A countywide task force is scheduled to study the idea.
Local government officials who fear that raising fees and trimming library hours just won't get the job done next year are reaching for other ideas.
In Clearwater, City Council member Paul Gibson urged the city to hire professional efficiency experts to examine city government from top to bottom and find ways to do more with less.
"We're a $400-million operation. … We're a big company. … And the thought that we're running it so well we can't run it any better is not something I can accept," Gibson said.
He said he wanted to find experts to "climb through our operations" and "crawl through our numbers" to make recommendations "about whether we can structure our business — that's what we are, a business — more efficiently."
Gibson even supports including the Clearwater police and fire departments in an efficiency review.
"I'm sure they could do things smarter," he said. "They are run by humans, and humans don't run things perfectly."
At a recent City Council discussion of Gibson's idea, City Manager Bill Horne disagreed with him that the city government is a business. He's right. Government, unlike business, does not exist to earn a profit. Its goals and purpose are entirely different, and it operates in a different legal framework, not to mention a political one.
Horne suggested that the City Council hire an efficiency expert with experience reviewing government departments and turn that expert loose on the Police Department, one of the city's largest, rather than launching an examination of all departments and procedures.
"There's no reason for us to be afraid of that kind of inquiry, but I think we ought to test it out" on the Police Department, he said.
Mayor Frank Hibbard noted that the City Council ordering such a review teeters on the edge of interfering with city administration. The city charter requires that the City Council maintain a policy-making role and stay out of administration. However, Hibbard said "there's always benefits from a fresh pair of eyes," and he suggested the city contact some companies that specialize in such work to find out how it is normally done.
Hibbard warned that an efficiency study, even one limited to the Police Department, probably will be expensive and will consume staff time. But he and the other council members were ready to explore the idea.
"If we don't find ways to be more efficient," Gibson said, "we're going to have to cut things we don't want to cut — soon."
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.