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City chooses budget winners, losers

Clearwater officials sift through next year's budget, looking for more than $2-million in cuts to services.

The Jasmine Court Recreation Center will stay open. The Jolley Trolley will keep providing bus service between downtown and the beach. And the Fire Department will hire nine new employees next year.

But the city's tourism department will go. So will the Clearwater magazine sent quarterly to all residents and the youth program that provides teens with summer job listings.

After several meetings, the City Commission decided Tuesday which programs should stay and which should be eliminated as part of more than $2-million worth of cuts in services the city will include in next year's budget.

"Your numbers are very, very close," City Manager Mike Roberto told commissioners. "It's just a matter of working some things out."

Commissioners have agreed to pay for expenses by increasing the property tax rate by 10 percent, leaving some jobs in all departments vacant longer and eliminating the $200,000 of unallocated funds Roberto could have accessed next year.

They also want staffers to look at having the city's utility funds, such as water and solid waste, contribute more to the general fund that pays for most city services, such as police officers and libraries.

But commissioners said they do not want to move the money around if it means an increase in utility fees to residents. The city already expects to raise the solid waste, water, sewer and stormwater fees sometime during the next year.

The additional money accounts for the usual rise in operating expenses, such as employee raises, and a few new costs, including $230,000 to maintain the new entrance to the beach, an expanded neighborhood program and computers.

The city's annual operating budget will increase from about $77.4-million to about $80-million, a 3.4 percent increase. A 10 percent raise would change the tax rate from $5.12 to $5.63 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

The city is allowed to reduce, not raise, the tax rate before the budget goes into effect Oct. 1. That is unlikely because city officials have had a difficult time cutting the budget, and still have to shave $100,000 more.