After almost six months of sweating over the city's continuing budget challenges, Clearwater City Council members voted Thursday night on a proposed 2010-2011 property tax rate that will appear in notices mailed to taxpayers next month. But the process is hardly over; for residents interested in how the city spends their tax dollars, several upcoming meetings will provide an opportunity for them to express their opinions.
The City Council chose to set the maximum tax rate at $5.1550 per thousand dollars of property value for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That's the same tax rate as the current year, though the rate will bring in $4.7 million less than this year because property values in the city continue to decline. To bring in the same amount of revenue next year, the city would have had to set the rate at $5.7610, but there was no interest on the City Council in doing so.
The fall in property values and its effect on the city's revenues were illustrated Thursday night. At the peak in 2007, the total value of property in the city was $11.1 billion and brought in more than $53 million in property tax revenue. Now, the total property value is $7.9 billion and brings in less than $32 million.
Because of lower revenues from a variety of sources, City Manager Bill Horne had to find $5 million in cuts to balance his proposed budget. Florida law requires local governments to balance their budgets so they do not operate at a deficit.
After several years of protecting public service departments from major cuts, Horne and the City Council agreed that this year, all city departments would have to share the pain. Thus, the Police Department is expected to lose about 34 full-time equivalent positions and the Fire Department may lose seven positions and a rescue unit.
The library system is spared in the proposed budget after enduring deep cuts in previous years, but reductions in the Parks and Recreation Department continue; eight positions will be lost. Positions also will be cut in other departments. The number of full-time equivalent positions in city government has fallen from 1,177 in 2008-2009 to 1,040 in the proposed 2011 budget.
The way city government financing is being altered by falling property tax revenue can be seen by looking at the city's general fund, where property taxes are deposited. Traditionally, the general fund was regarded as the account that paid for city services. But these days, property taxes make up only 33 percent of the general fund. The police and fire departments alone chew up 53 percent of the general fund. Property taxes are covering less and less of the city's bills.
City Council member John Doran noted that in the last 10 years, the city opened two new fire stations, a new signature main library, a new branch library, two new recreation centers and took over operation of the Long Center from a private group that could no longer keep it up. All have been popular services, but residents shouldn't expect the same in the future.
"The residents of Clearwater would be sorely mistaken to assume we can provide the same level of service we did three years ago," he said.
The City Council has planned a special budget meeting on Aug. 30, and then formal public hearings at 6 p.m. on Sept. 9 and Sept. 22. Clearwater residents can view the proposed budget at the city's website, myclearwater.com, and become informed before expressing their opinions about the city spending plan. The ball is now in the public's court.