Budget season scarcely has begun for local governments, but already there is a backlash against two early proposals that would reduce staffing, hours and access in a couple of parks in Pinellas County. Unfortunately, those moves reflect today's economic realities. Property values continue to fall, required caps on local government revenues are in place and projections show local governments must cut millions of dollars to balance their 2011 budgets. Without property tax increases, the downsizing of government is going to require reducing popular programs and services.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster already has been criticized for reducing the size of the ranger staff at popular Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. The 250-acre park on the shore of Lake Maggiore had five full-time rangers. Foster, looking ahead to a projected $14 million hole in the 2011 fiscal year budget that begins in October, decided to cut the staffing immediately to one full-time and three part-time rangers. He also reduced the park's hours. The cuts will save about $175,000 a year. Boyd Hill is a city treasure, but it is unrealistic to think the preserve — or libraries or parks or other popular city destinations — are going to be unaffected by steep declines in tax revenue. Foster is prudently pruning now so cuts will not have to be so deep in the fall.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala has suggested that a $5-per-car admission fee may be needed at 1,136-acre Fort De Soto Park in south Pinellas. The fee idea came up last year and was ditched after an avalanche of objections. But LaSala is looking at a $40 million shortfall in his general fund budget next year, and the park admission fee would bring in about $1.7 million per year. The Fort De Soto staff already has been downsized to less than half what it was three years ago. Volunteers are trying to pick up the slack. While there is a strong argument to be made that parks should be free, particularly during a recession, the size of the budget shortfall is going to require all sorts of good policies to be re-examined.
This is the third year of budget cuts for local governments, so it is harder to find fat to trim. Voters passed Amendment 1, the Legislature capped allowable increases in local property taxes, and the recession triggered a steep decline in property values. Pinellas city and county officials already have eliminated open positions, laid off employees, reduced library and park hours, canceled programs, frozen salaries, raised health insurance premiums, limited travel and cut energy costs. Still, millions more must be cut before Oct. 1.
With the mission of local governments pared down by economic conditions, state spending limits and voter demands for lower taxes, there are going to be fundamental changes to popular programs that once would have been off-limits.