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Public safety causes budget-cutting angst for Pasco commissioners

Pasco County commissioners talked Tuesday morning of fewer firefighters, public health threats from animals, guarding jail trusties and the consequences of children having too much idle time.

And where did they do their talking? Safety Town.

The miniature city in Shady Hills provided the backdrop for shrinking the size of government. To no one's surprise, financing public safety became the top consideration at this education center geared to teach kids about public safety.

Unfortunately, the railroad crossings, sheriff's helicopter and ''stop, drop and roll'' fire safety technique weren't part of Tuesday's curriculum. Commissioners learned the hard lessons of exactly what services will be reduced or eliminated as they cobble together a budget for the coming year that will include millions of dollars' worth of cuts, even with a 19 percent increase in the property tax rate. The tax hike will provide a $13 million cushion to what had been projected as $37 million in cuts.

Take Animal Services, for instance. Even though it is opening a shelter and adoption center this year, it proposed cutting 13 field officers, customer service workers and animal care technicians at a department that is projected to impound 10,500 animals this year.

The proposed cuts would mean no service on Saturdays and ending after-hours emergency calls (usually 300 a year). Commissioners, instead, agreed to a recommendation to retain four animal control officers, but leave three vacancies, fill one of four vacant animal care technician posts and budget $20,000 for overtime to handle the after-hours calls.

It was not unexpected, given the assertion from Commissioner Michael Cox, a dog owner and animal advocate, that tending to injured animals or disposing of dead wildlife on area road sides is "absolutely a public safety issue.''

Unionized public safety employees didn't fare as well. Financed by a separate municipal tax, the county's fire department could lose 48 positions, 22 of which are vacant, unless the rank and file agree to forgo 5 percent salary increases awarded by a special master and accept a union proposal to suspend holiday pay for one year. It's a generous perk, costing $1 million annually, that pays firefighters for 12 hours of overtime on 10 holidays, whether they work or not. Those who do work receive overtime pay throughout their shift and also get the additional 12 hours at the same pay rate. It's a benefit awarded to no other county employees.

County administrators said they are not hopeful of the firefighters accepting that proposal, nor do they believe rank-and-file members understand a separate union plan for unpaid furlough days.

The alternative isn't pretty.

"They're either going to give up things or we're going to lay off people,'' County Administrator John Gallagher told commissioners.

It would mean fewer firefighters at the county's 23 fire stations with the potential for longer response times for ambulance calls if crews already have been summoned to a reported fire.

There was not the same angst over the Parks and Recreation budget. Cutting 38 positions brought little discussion except to ask the cities of New Port Richey and Dade City to share costs associated with county staffers working at the municipally owned Pine Hill Park and James Irvin Civic Community Center.

Otherwise, sports leagues will be responsible for lining their own fields and policing areas for trash. County workers will rotate among multiple parks, and closing swimming pools at the Hercules Aquatic Center in Zephyrhills and at Grove Park in New Port Richey seem like a foregone conclusion.

Sadly, it is indicative of the county's demographics. Representatives of some well-financed leagues in the area's more affluent ZIP codes have told the county they'd gladly pay the county extra to keep painting the baseball, football and soccer fields, while residents in other areas will struggle with the new requirements.

"The heartbreak of this,'' said Parks and Recreation director Rick Buckman, ''is that being forced to do this is creating a bigger separation between the haves and the have-nots.''

Public safety causes budget-cutting angst for Pasco commissioners 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:58pm]
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