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Taxpayers begin to feel sting of budget cuts

It's really hitting the fan now.

This is the month when local governments in Florida must approve their tax rates and budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Many of them are whacking services in response to Florida voters' decision last January to reduce property taxes through Amendment 1.

These cuts come on top of those made last year when the Legislature instituted a tax revenue cap on local governments. And even more cuts are required because falling property values are reducing the amount of revenue local governments can get from property taxes.

Around the state, residents are learning about the resulting cuts in services as elected officials hold budget public hearings, and some are dismayed that services they like are on the list. Often, they don't understand why.

The reason is simple enough: Local governments provide services, which are delivered by government employees. Personnel costs make up a huge portion of local government budgets, so reducing the budget usually means cutting personnel costs.

The city of Lakeland, for example, closed five of its most popular parks on Labor Day. Why was that necessary? Because the city couldn't afford to pay park workers holiday overtime.

In other communities, the grass is growing long in parks and the restrooms aren't as clean because maintenance crews have been reduced. Recreation centers won't be open as many hours — some cities fear they may even close permanently — because it costs too much to staff them. Fewer festivals and concerts are planned because those events require staff time and overtime pay. It will take longer for residents to get permits for things such as construction projects and tree removals because there are fewer workers to process the applications.

Public safety agencies haven't been immune either. Fire departments are losing individuals who focus on fire safety and education. Some police departments are shutting down labor-intensive community policing programs, and sheriff's offices are laying off victims advocates.

However, parks and leisure programs are bearing the brunt of the cost-cutting so far. Treasure Island officials voted last week to withdraw that city's share of funding for the Gulf Beaches Public Library in Madeira Beach, despite pleas from residents to save the funding. Now Treasure Island's residents will have to pay a $100 annual fee if they want to use the library, and the future of the Gulf Beaches library, supported by several small beach cities, is in doubt.

Cuts in library hours drew a crowd to last Thursday's Clearwater City Council public hearing on the 2008-09 tax rate and budget. Library lovers were upset that some of the city's five libraries will be shut down some days.

The most heavily used library in the city, the Countryside branch, will close on Fridays and Saturdays and open only four hours on Sundays. It will be open only one evening a week — Mondays. The busy East branch will be closed Sundays and Mondays and open only two evenings.

The same single shift of library workers will now be used to operate the city's two smallest libraries. Those workers will open the Clearwater Beach branch in the morning, shut it down at 1 p.m., run over to the North Greenwood branch to open it at 2 p.m. and then close it at the end of the afternoon. Fortunately, the city's Main Library downtown will be kept open at least some hours seven days a week.

For a community that loves its libraries and frequently has agitated to have them open more hours, this was disturbing business, so library users came to the microphone to express their dissatisfaction. For some members of the City Council, who had warned in January that if voters passed Amendment 1 it could devastate local government services, the objections were just too much. They delivered some objections of their own.

"Sixty-seven percent of the voters said 'reduce our taxes.' That's what we're trying to do. We don't have magic wands — all we have is your tax dollars," Vice Mayor George Cretekos told them.

Mayor Frank Hibbard explained that the city's costs have been driven up constantly in recent years — primarily by employee pensions, fuel charges, health care costs and property insurance increases — yet its tax revenue in next year's budget will drop 13 percent.

Council member Jon Doran said that for about $456 a year in taxes — less than most people pay for their cell phone or cable TV — Clearwater residents get police and fire protection, streets and sidewalks, libraries and recreation and other services. And despite Amendment 1, he said he is frequently approached by constituents who want even more services.

Council member Carlen Petersen, who voted against the tax rate Thursday because "we must invest in the future," said she believes that people who voted for Amendment 1 didn't realize that their taxes wouldn't plummet and that there wasn't a lot of fat in city budgets to trim.

But council member Paul Gibson said he believes that voters knew exactly what they were doing when they approved Amendment 1: demanding smaller government, fewer services and lower taxes.

He considers it a voter mandate to "remake government" and foresees much deeper cuts in popular services ahead because local governments have certain costs — for example, insurance, utilities and employee pensions — that they cannot reduce substantially. They will have to cut personnel, and that means services that the public is accustomed to receiving from those government employees will have to go.

"This is the beginning, not the end" of the cost cutting that will be required, he predicted, before voters get the smaller, cheaper government they apparently wanted.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com

Taxpayers begin to feel sting of budget cuts 09/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 10, 2008 7:23pm]

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