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Director making sense of dollars

Quite often, they are not at all pleased with what she has to say. Some of them mispronounce her name. Yet, it appears, they like her. City officials seem to like her a lot.

When Patricia Ann Elston took the job as manager of budget and management for the city in 1988, she became a perennial bearer of bad news.

The 1990 budget, which fell $11.7-million short before balancing, forced the City Council to cut services and raise taxes. Last month, Elston's office predicted more of the same for at least the next six years.

But amid the swirl of troubling facts, Elston has gained favor in recent months for presenting complicated financial information clearly;

for providing a complete picture, even when the news is bad; and for dispensing with the official-sounding sentences that often cloud the meanings of public documents.

"I think she's one of the best things to happen to St. Petersburg in a long time," said Connie Kone, the president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations and a civic activist who has been critical of City Hall. "She presents these things in the most comprehensive manner that I've ever seen."

Many of Elston's fellow administrators started to take notice one night last May when, during a televised question-and-answer session on the 1990 budget, she took her turn on stage. Using color charts and uncluttered English, Elston delivered a frank and understandable explanation of the city's financial condition.

Afterward, city officials were beaming. Even if the news was politically damaging, their thinking went, at least the public got a clearer picture of the city's situation.

Elston's presentations have since become a favorite tool of the city manager's office.

Two weeks ago, she went before the council with news that the city's costs were rising faster than its income and that this would continue to happen through 1996 unless the City Council took action.

"Your budget-balancing decisions for the future will not be easy," Elston said flatly. She also warned that the city is closing in on the maximum property tax rate allowed by Florida law.

To finance the city's operating expenses, St. Petersburg property owners now pay a rate of about $8.65 for every $1,000 of taxable value.

The most a city may levy for operating costs is $10, or a millage of 10.

Elston was candid: "Message?" she said to council members. "Your remaining millage provides you with a limited opportunity. Use it wisely."

The budget director, Elston said in an interview last week, is as much a translator as a mathematics wiz.

"For me, the bottom line is: people can't trust you if they can't understand you," she said. "I guess I've always had a facility for numbers, and I enjoy working with them.

"But I think I have an ability to get beyond them. . . . I think a lot of times people are just intimidated by numbers. I sort of try to take away that intimidation factor."

Elston came to the city in September 1988, replacing Neal Heintz.

"She seemed to have all the right answers," said City Manager Robert Obering, who hired her away from Hillsborough County government after interviewing three finalists. "She was heads above the others."

Elston, who uses the first name "Tish," moved from Indiana to St. Petersburg in 1973 with her husband, Carl. He had taken a job with the St. Petersburg Police Department but has since left for a job in private industry.

Elston said she would not have applied had her husband still worked for the city. His departure opened the door for the career move she had been contemplating.

Elston had worked for Hillsborough County since 1974, starting as a $14,600-a-year planner for the criminal justice system and rising to be budget director at a salary of $56,600.

Elston said she left the county after her management philosophies began to differ from other administrators. She also said that after 14 years as a county official, she was seeking a change to city government.

She started in St. Petersburg at a salary of $59,020 and now earns $64,454, according to city personnel records. The new job ended years of harried commuting to Tampa across the Howard Frankland Bridge.

As much as they seem to like her performance, some City Council members still have trouble getting Elston's first name right. Mayor Robert Ulrich, for one, calls her "Trish."

Elston began using the name Tish when, as a high school student, she worked as a waitress. It was a way to distinguish herself from another waitress named Patricia, or Trish. Some relatives, however, call her Pat or Patty.

"As a result," she said, "I answer to anything."

Elston grew up on a farm in La Crosse, Ind., where she helped care for cows as a member of the local 4-H Club. She liked math and English.

In 1969, she graduated "with distinction" from Indiana University with a major in police administration and minor in sociology.

Besides clarity, Elston has brought more long-range planning to the city's budget process, a feature that was lacking in past years, officials said.

"We never saw the big picture; we only saw it year by year," Vice Mayor Robert Stewart said. "It helps us in making current decisions to know what the long-range decisions are going to be."

City officials divide St. Petersburg's financial fortunes into two

categories: its debt load and the operating budget. While the city's financial advisers classify the debt load as conservative, the operating budget has run into serious problems.

Elston's office has predicted that, over the next few years, the city faces budget shortfalls of $4-million to $33-million. A shortfall occurs when the city - before balancing the budget - estimates that it won't have enough money to meet its current needs.

State law mandates that cities balance their budgets. Thus, shortfalls must be reconciled either by raising more money or cutting costs.

While most taxpayers see shortfalls as "inherently bad," Elston said, "it's no different from them prioritizing what they do at home each year."

She conceded, however, that solving St. Petersburg's continuing shortfalls could be a relatively painful process.

"It's not all a rosy picture, but if we begin now, we can create many more options long-term than if we just reacted on a year-to-year basis," she said. "In order to create realistic options, you have to have time to develop them."