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With leaner finances, Clearwater heads down a more uncertain path

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne gave his annual report on the state of the city the other day, and it had an undertone not present in his previous eight reports. It is now clear, Horne said, "that we need to plan deliberatively for a future that will look very different from what we envisioned a few years ago."

That message about dreams modified underlay even the bright spots in Horne's speech, delivered during last Tuesday's City Council meeting. Horne's no pessimist, but even he finds it difficult to look into the future and believe that Clearwater will not be reduced somehow by the changes sweeping over local governments.

It isn't just the recession. If it were just that, he could predict, as many people do, that in a year or two the recovery will be well under way and prosperity soon will return.

The state of the economy isn't the sole problem affecting local governments and, therefore, the communities they serve. Others include:

• A decline in property values so precipitous that they are unlikely to return to the levels achieved during the boom. Local governments built their dreams — and their residents' expectations about what services a local government should deliver — on the level of taxes they collected when property values were high.

• Florida's dysfunctional and inequitable tax structure, which is too dependent on property taxes and sales taxes, both vulnerable to economic downturns.

• Out-migration from Florida. For decades, this state powered its dreams on income from growth. That income source appears to be drying up as more people move out of Florida and fewer people move in.

• A state Legislature that flexed its muscles by capping revenue growth for city and county governments — but still dumps unfunded mandates on those local governments.

• Florida voters' approval of amendments to the state Constitution that cap property tax assessments for homesteaded property and allow those homeowners to carry the tax break with them when they move.

All of those factors contribute to a feeling in local governments that their hard times will go on after the recession lifts.

"We have reached a fork in the road," Horne said, "and it is clear our future path is not going to be the one we had expected to travel."

For the past couple of decades, Clearwater has been blessed with (critics might say cursed with) officials who set the bar high. They wanted Clearwater to be known as a tourist destination and a place with a high quality of life for residents, and they were willing to spend money to accomplish that. That's how Clearwater ended up with five libraries, a Police Department with multiple substations, parks and recreation centers all over the city, a new spring-training baseball stadium, well-maintained streets and sidewalks, BeachWalk, a public art program and a packed schedule of annual public events such as the Jazz Holiday and the Fun 'N Sun Festival. Not bad for a city of only 100,000 or so.

However, Clearwater fears it can't afford to be that kind of city anymore. City officials and residents who liked the way things were are struggling to right-size their vision to fit the new reality, but it is tough for a place that had so much ambition. It has been as hard for Horne as for anyone else, as he has had to preside for the past two years over the dismantling of programs, the consolidation of departments, the shuttering of public facilities and the layoffs of employees. Next year's budget season is likely to be even worse.

Horne's state of the city speech wasn't all doom and gloom. Despite the difficulties of 2009, he said the city had some remarkable successes.

It raised its bond rating for water and sewer projects from AA-minus to A, which will save the city about $500,000 per year in debt service. It began addressing parking and traffic problems on Clearwater Beach, where the city's dream of a beach with new resorts and hotels is being realized. Clearwater's fire department answered 24,000 calls for service, and renovations of two fire stations are planned. The city is completing a major traffic calming project in Skycrest and has begun restoration of Alligator Creek. The city gas system had its best year ever, bringing in gross profits of more than $14 million and returning more than $6 million to the city treasury.

Downtown, the city completed construction of a promenade on the waterfront and began construction of boat slips there, saw several new restaurants open, celebrated the completion of Station Square park and 100 new parking garage spaces, and kicked off a program of public events in the Cleveland Street district.

The Parks and Recreation Department suffered many cutbacks in 2008 and 2009, but it still managed to host 50 athletic tournaments, serve 3,500 children in youth sports, teach swimming lessons to more than 20,000 and help host events that bring the city national attention, including the Ironman 70.3 and Jazz Holiday. Residents helped, racking up 54,000 volunteer hours.

The staff and hours at libraries were cut deeply, and they were threatened with closings, but as the year ends, all five are still open, there were 860,000 library visits in the past year, and volunteer hours are up 500 percent.

The years ahead may be difficult in this city that always wanted to do more, but Horne isn't content with stagnation. Clearwater is in better shape than many other cities, he said, and its creativity and innovation "can lead to a future different, but equally bright."

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

With leaner finances, Clearwater heads down a more uncertain path 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 10:19am]

    

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