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Budgets aren't yet set in stone

Close readers of this newspaper could not have missed these headlines the last few days: "Safety Harbor plans no tax rise," "Tax in Seminole might creep up," "City's budget doesn't have tax increase," "Tarpon tax rate may increase."

Here's a hint about what's going on: Municipal budgets are being quietly prepared now, so if you want to influence spending in your community, the time to begin is now.

Oh, sure, we know that city budgets aren't voted on until September. We also know there will be public hearings on the budgets in August. And we know that taxpayers haven't yet received this year's TRIM notice, a state-required document in which local taxing authorities notify you how much your taxes may change if proposed tax rates are approved.

So if late summer and early fall are "budget season," aren't we jumping the gun a bit to suggest you should pay attention to budgets in June?

Not at all. What many people don't know is that most of the heavy lifting in municipal budget preparations is done in the spring, long before elected officials get the official budget documents and before any public hearings are held.

Municipal budgets aren't prepared by elected officials, but by city staffs. They start that job soon after the beginning of the new year. By early summer they are able to hand to the elected officials a completed budget, all laid out nice and pretty with completely rational explanations.

Most of the elected boards that run Pinellas municipalities do little more than tinker with the staffs' work before passing the budgets in September. In fact, because Florida law spells out an exact timetable for advertising and passing city budgets, late summer really is too late for any substantive changes in the budgets. With a state deadline looming, elected officials will just pencil in a few minor changes before voting.

If you wait until August public hearings to tell your city commissioners how to spend your tax dollars, it is like going to the barn to tie up the horse when the horse is galloping across the next county.

If you want to influence your city's spending habits, write now to your city manager, who must sign off on the completed budget before handing it off to the city commissions or councils. Follow that up by writing or calling your elected officials so they know your sentiments early.