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Budget talk swirls over city safety, tax outlook

(ran BEACH edition)

A political football landed Monday in the hands of city commissioners.

Within the next month, the commission must decide if public safety needs are significant to the point of raising property taxes by 12 percent.

During a budget workshop session Monday, both the city's police and fire chiefs recommended hiring additional officers and firefighters.

But City Manager Carl Schwing, who says he is not convinced the city is facing a public safety crisis, is not recommending the nearly $400,000 in additional public safety spending. The proposed police and fire budgets alone would bump property taxes more than 10 percent.

"I know there is some concern in the community about a possible tax increase. We've worked hard to propose a budget where you may not have to raise rates at all," Schwing told the commission before the fire, police, and other city department heads presented their wish lists for next year.

Fire Chief Fred Golliner wants enough firefighters to allow each of the city's two stations to simultaneously dispatch either a fire rescue vehicle or a fire truck. The department currently averages three firefighters per shift. A minimum of two are required on either type of vehicle.

"When the rescue vehicle goes out," Golliner said, "it leaves one man in the station and it's not safe for one person to take a fire truck out." The chief said that Treasure Island and Gulfport both schedule four firefighters per shift.

"We haven't increased our work force since 1980," Golliner said. "You provide us with top-of-the-line equipment. We just need people on the trucks to use them."

When Commissioner Peter Blank asked Golliner if he would take three firefighters instead, the chief replied, "I will take whatever you give me, but I need six."

Police chief Ray Kaminskas told the commission he wants to hire two police officers to allow creation of a "community response team." The special unit would focus on resolving the continuing issues of alcohol usage and dogs on the beach, manning a DUI "wolf pack" to control drunken driving, responding to nuisance and noise complaints, investigating code enforcement complaints, and providing general community relations services.

When Schwing suggested that a volunteer reserve office program might perform the same duties without the cost, Kaminskas said he was concerned about armed but unpaid sworn officers on city streets. "The liability is what I'm afraid of," he said.

Commissioners were interested in Schwing's proposal, however, and asked the city manager to research the idea further.

"It's a real dilemma. If money is no object, this would be an easy decision. We would want to staff up the police department," said Mayor Ward Friszowlowski.

But, money _ and property taxes _ are an issue, the commission agreed, as it instructed Schwing to at least mention the police and fire department requests in his recommended budget, due to be published this week.

"If in your heart of hearts you think you have public safety issues, the people will be willing to pay for it. They will not come and burn you at the cross. They can and will pay for it," the city's finance director, Steve Gallagher, told the commission.

Other proposed spending increases include:

n A new bus and a part-time employee in the leisure services department.

n Additional clerical staff in the city manager's and city clerk's offices.

n A maintenance employee who would be responsible for the new city hall.

n Two new managerial positions _ a $45,000 assistant director for the building services department and a $40,000 budget officer in the finance department.

While assuring the commission that not all of these requests will be included in the proposed budget, Schwing warned the commission that if it does not raise rates this year, personnel costs will force a millage increase next year.

"If you choose not to raise tax rates, I can guarantee that next year you will be looking at a rate increase," he said.

The only other option, Schwing said, is to find other sources of revenues. For the 2001-02 fiscal year, he is recommending raising parking fees from $1 to $1.25 an hour at the city's 33 pay stations _ estimated to increase city revenues by about $100,000. Mechanical parking meters would not be affected by the fee increase.

Schwing said the proposed millage (3.1333), plus the city's existing debt service, would cost a property owner about $704 annually _ or about $74 more than last year _ for a home valued at $250,000, minus the homestead exemption.