Another dismal budget season has begun in North Pinellas cities, with city workers once again fearing for their jobs and futures and city officials already rubbing their temples over the tough spending decisions ahead.
Property values continue to fall throughout the Tampa Bay area, so property tax revenue for local governments continues to fall as well. In fact, most sources of revenue for local governments are in decline, though rising gas prices bring the promise of a little additional gas tax revenue — if people can afford to drive.
Two years ago, local government officials had predicted that the economy would recover by 2011. Now they admit those predictions were too rosy. Even when the Florida economy recovers, local governments still will be forced to operate under revenue limitations established by the Florida Legislature and voters through Amendment 1 to the state Constitution.
"This is the new normal," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne declared at a recent budget session with his City Council members. Clearwater faces a shortfall of almost $8 million in its 2011 budget, taking effect Oct. 1. Largo officials are looking for $3.5 million to cut. Those cuts will come after several previous years of reductions.
In Clearwater, officials are wondering whether "city government" needs to be redefined. Ten years ago, in places like Clearwater and Largo, it would have been easy to find a definition most folks could agree on. A city government usually provided basic services such as police, fire protection, water, sewer, sidewalks, street repair, permitting, garbage pickup and code enforcement. And it also offered services that one person couldn't easily provide for himself: libraries, recreation centers, parks, athletic fields, community events like festivals and concerts.
North Pinellas cities have managed to maintain all of those services, just less frequently or with less robust staffing. Now, with revenues still declining, officials are talking about which services may have to be carved off the list entirely.
At what point does a library staff get so small that the building should not remain open? When does a pared-down parks and recreation staff get so overworked that it isn't appropriate to make them keep going? What other services do you eliminate completely to keep a fire department fully staffed? When do you contract out police protection?
A week ago the Clearwater City Council decided to ask Sheriff Jim Coats how much he would charge to provide the same level of law enforcement now provided by the Clearwater Police Department. Until this year, the city never had pursued that information, even though Coats claimed he could save the city millions. Council members made clear they don't want to eliminate the city department, but with such a bad revenue picture, they felt they had to ask. Another sign of the bad times: Clearwater residents did not immediately march on City Hall in protest.
A couple of years ago when state officials were putting revenue caps on local governments, they claimed that public safety departments would remain sacrosanct. But last week, Largo commissioners found reductions in both police and fire department staffing on a list of cuts proposed by the city manager. Between trims made in this current budget year and those proposed for 2011, the city would leave nine police positions — six of them sworn positions — unfunded.
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard noted that just last year, the police chief said he needed more officers. She said she wants at least two of those positions restored. Largo City Manager Norton Craig said he had tried to spread the pain around to all departments to find $3.5 million in cuts. If the City Commission decides to restore police officer positions, something else will have to be cut more deeply.
This month's discussions are just the beginning of the budget process, with city managers trying to get an idea of what cuts are feasible. City budgets won't get final approval until September. What lies between now and then is a long, hot summer full of budget miseries.
Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.