Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala has delivered a dose of realism along with his proposed county budget. With government revenues still falling, he proposes service cuts all residents will feel and he's launching a top-to-bottom reorganization of county government. He is on the right track, but county officials should seek alternatives to cuts that could harm the environment and the county's neediest residents.
LaSala proposes $22 million in cuts in 2010-11 and is wiping out hundreds of positions. The number of employees under the administrator's jurisdiction is now down to 1985 levels. Pinellas County has experienced a lot of growth in population and county government services since 1985. The impact of the cuts would be felt in ways big and small, from more potholes to long delays for permits to higher grass in parks. Code enforcement complaints would be responded to in 18 to 20 days instead of two.
Two county departments, Cultural Affairs and the STARS program for the chronically unemployed, will be given $300,000 each to transition into independent nonprofits. LaSala's decision to dismantle the county's Department of Environmental Management and distribute its duties to other departments already struggling with budget cuts is a concern. The department oversees the county's environmental lands, air and water quality, and coastal management, among other things — tasks too vital to let slide.
Of even more concern are continued cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is losing $7 million and 14 positions in this budget alone. County funding for 27 local nonprofit social service agencies will be reduced, preventive screening and wellness services for the poor will be deferred, 1,500 fewer people will be enrolled in the health services for the needy, and money that paid social workers to help the street homeless population will be eliminated. The human cost of such cuts could be high, and that approach to budget cutting doesn't conform with the county government's duty to protect the public health and welfare.
LaSala's budget cuts would be even deeper without some proposals for raising new revenues, including new parking fees at Fort De Soto and other major county parks, increases in water and sewer rates, and a likely increase in the county Emergency Medical Services tax. But LaSala hasn't proposed an increase in the county property tax rate.
Pinellas is fortunate to have in LaSala an experienced administrator who takes the long view and isn't afraid to make hard decisions that come with creating a new model for county government. But as county commissioners now take their turn with the budget, they should look for ways to avoid cuts that abandon the county's environmental initiatives and cause more suffering for people struggling to survive the recession.