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Park Station gets go ahead from council

(ran West, Seminole, Beach editions)

Council members thawed their construction and job freeze long enough to spend millions last week for a faux train station to house local art, history, the chamber of commerce and city offices.

They also agreed to fill five of the 29 vacant positions that were put on hold last month when the city acted to stave off a projected $1.1-million shortfall in the 2003-04 budget year.

The five positions are a fire department lieutenant and four in the police department _ a full-time dispatcher, a part-time dispatcher, a clerk and a victim's advocate.

"These are some of the most crucial vacancies," said City Manager Jerry Mudd, who will ask the council to reopen other jobs if the need becomes critical.

Roughly 90 projects _ about $19.4-million of the $33.6-million capital improvement budget _ are stalled indefinitely. Among those are sidewalks, a police department building expansion, land for a new fire station, and traffic calming.

While some Council members favored allowing all the projects to go ahead as originally planned, a majority agreed that city staff members should trim 10 percent, or about $3.4-million, before plans could go ahead. The proposed cuts are scheduled to come before the council in January.

The long awaited Park Station project will cost $3.3-million, about $40,000 less than the budgeted cost.

Designed to resemble a train station of the late 19th or early 20th Century, the facility will serve as the anchor to an upgraded city center that Council members hope will attract small shops and many people.

Park Station will be built on the north side of Park Boulevard at the railroad tracks where the Pinellas Park/Mid-County Chamber of Commerce once stood. The new building will house the chamber as well as the Pinellas Park Art and Historical societies and city offices.

Construction is expected to begin sometime in January and should take about a year.

Bids were being accepted for the station when the council froze spending last month.

Dan Katsiyiannis, head of the city's budget department, had forecast as early as July that revenues would be lower than expected. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had resulted in less tourism, a sluggish economy and low interest rates. Adding to that was a declining stock market, which hurt the city's investments.

The real danger, Katsiyiannis warned, was that the city's savings could slip below the recommended minimum that ensures the city can keep operating in tough times.

In Pinellas Park, that figure is about $3.6-million, or 10 percent of the city's $36-million operating budget. The savings are used to get the city through emergencies and natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes, and for operating expenses while the city waits for revenue to come in.