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Taxwise, you get what you pay for

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 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 close permanently — because it costs too much to staff them. Fewer festivals and concerts are planned because they require staff time and overtime pay. It will take longer for residents to get permits for 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.

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 $100 a year 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 the Clearwater City Council public hearing on the 2008-09 tax rate and budget Thursday. Library lovers were upset that some of the city's five libraries will be shut down some days.

For a community that loves its libraries and frequently has agitated to have them open more hours, this was disturbing, so library users came to the microphone to express their dissatisfaction. For some City Council members, 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.

Council member Carlen Petersen, who voted against the tax rate Thursday, said she thinks 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 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."

"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 is editor of editorials for the north Pinellas editions of the Times. Her e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Taxwise, you get what you pay for 09/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 10:21am]

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