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More tears likely as Clearwater trims to survive

Tucker Toenjes isn't a Wall Street tycoon whose greed contributed to the sagging of the U.S. economy. He didn't vote for Amendment One. Tucker is only 10 years old. However, he will suffer the consequences of city budget cuts forced by the sour economy and the limits state legislators and Florida voters put on cities' ability to raise revenue. And he doesn't like it.

Tucker, along with several dozen other Clearwater Beach residents, came to last week's Clearwater City Council meeting after hearing the city might close the Clearwater Beach public pool and branch library. At the podium, he talked about how this year, finally, his parents were going to let him to ride his bike alone to the pool and library, but if they close, he can't.

"Please think about our future, my future," Tucker read from his notes. "Show me that you care about me as a kid on Clearwater Beach. Let me grow up with the privileges my parents had with a library and pool near their neighborhood. Or are you going to choose to put a price on my head and my future when I'm only 10 years old?"

Another 10-year-old also came to the microphone to oppose closing the pool. Barely able to speak, wiping tears from her cheeks and chin, Helena Heuberger simply said what a joy it is to swim there.

An adult in the crowd identified with that joy. A quadriplegic, he rolled to the podium in a wheelchair to tell council members that the loss of his pool and library would be devastating.

At virtually every council meeting these days, people show up to plead for the city to spare some facility or program from budget cuts. Yet cuts are coming, and soon.

The City Council has not voted to close the Clearwater Beach facilities. The city manager, who creates the budget, hasn't recommended they be closed. But Clearwater Beach residents heard that the city's parks and recreation director had recommended the closings and that was enough to get them to City Hall last week.

City Manager Bill Horne told the crowd he asked all of his department heads to submit 2011 department budgets that were 5 percent less than the current year's budget. Each department head sent him a list of recommended cuts, but Horne hasn't decided which to accept, and he won't submit his proposed budget to the City Council until late this month.

But council members know they face a budget deficit of more than $7 million in the fourth straight year of budget gaps. And there are predictions of deficits again a year from now, as property values still are declining, resulting in ever lower tax collections.

Residents who tell council members not to cut their favorite programs often offer suggestions for other ways the city could cope with budget deficits. Often those ideas already have been explored or even utilized by the city, or the suggestions are unrealistic or impractical.

Several residents suggested the city make every department cut a little rather than closing facilities, apparently unaware of such cuts in previous years and that Horne had asked each department for another 5 percent cut. Mayor Frank Hibbard explained that across-the-board trims don't save the city nearly as much money as closing facilities or programs.

One resident proposed that the council fire the city manager and let the mayor run the city, saying the mayor was fully qualified to do so. That resident apparently didn't know that the city charter created by city voters requires a professional city manager to run daily operations, while the mayoral post is designated as a part-time, ceremonial job.

Several residents last week suggested the city use its reserves to keep spending up and facilities open. That's not really cutting spending, which many Clearwater residents have demanded the city do in response to the economic downturn. The council also has resisted spending rainy day funds for recurring expenses, realizing that if a hurricane hit Pinellas and the city didn't have enough reserves to immediately start repairs, the City Council would be blasted for irresponsibility. Another option would be for the city to raise the tax rate, which would not even result in a higher tax bill for some property owners.

While the city should be looking at the budget line by line to squeeze out non-essential spending and should consider closing public facilities only as a last resort, the public must understand that there are few easy decisions left. There will likely be more tears at the podium as the budget talks continue through the summer.

More tears likely as Clearwater trims to survive 06/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 6:57pm]
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