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Budget's first stage: "innovative' shrinking

Pinellas County officials are starting to work on the county's budget for next year, and they've been told to start trimming.

Last summer, commissioners approved a $1.5-billion budget after a lot of wrangling and cuts to the budget staffers first presented. The first draft contained an almost automatic increase for inflation.

This year, the county's new administrator, Steve Spratt, is starting at the other end. He's starting out by looking for ways to shrink the budget.

Spratt has told department heads and county agencies that he wants them to turn in proposed budgets that are smaller than last year.

"This doesn't say that's how it will all shake out in the end," Spratt said. "But it's a planning process."

After Sept. 11, county officials began trimming expenses in this year's budget. They froze jobs and cut down on travel and other expenses. Ultimately, Spratt asked each county department to cut 3.3 percent from its budget.

For next year's budget, Spratt has asked managers to present a budget that is 0.9 percent lower than the budget approved for this year.

Spratt estimated that the costs of the exact same services as this year would be 3.3 percent more.

But that's not the number staffers are working with. Spratt has instructed them to think creatively, study their priorities and look for ways to bring in new cash, such as concessions or boat rentals at county parks. Don't just cut travel expenses, he said. Instead, look at how county operations could be more efficient.

"Be innovative in developing your own solutions," Spratt told managers.

Some commissioners said they're pleased with the new approach.

"Until we know that we're back on track 100 percent, we're going to have to watch our pennies," said Commissioner John Morroni.

Commissioner Susan Latvala supported a tax increase rather than cutting services last year. But she also was pleased.

"I'm excited about what he's doing and the processes he's putting in place," she said. "It's what we've been waiting for. We're looking for somebody with fresh, new ideas, who can look at the budget without any ownership and find ways to be more cost-effective."

But talk about pressure. Spratt will be facing more than high expectations as he puts together his first budget proposal. The county is facing its tightest revenue crunch in years. Commissioners struggled to agree on a budget last year, finally passing a budget with a whirl of last-minute cuts that most would rather not repeat.

And it's an election year. With four commissioners on the ballot, they may think twice about raising property tax rates, especially since doing so would be the fourth rate hike in a row.

"I'm operating under the assumption they'd like to try to avoid that," Spratt said.