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Budget proposal projects lean year

The first look at Pinellas County's budget for next year isn't pretty.

The early forecast: the county faces a $24.6-million gap between its revenues and its costs and reserves.

And that's not counting some pricey items, such as improving health insurance for the uninsured, costs state lawmakers could shift to counties and transportation improvements.

"This is worse than the early '90s, when there was such a crisis,' said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Commissioner Bob Stewart said he thought it was worse. Stewart said commissioners need to keep the forecast in mind as they hear requests to spend.

"We need to have a snapshot of this on our foreheads at all times, when (hospital executives), the homeless coalition or recreation needs come forward," he said.

Commissioner Ken Welch agreed.

"It'd be a nice screen saver for our laptops," he joked.

But commissioners had few jokes about the budget, the first numbers given to them by Administrator Steve Spratt and county budget director Mark Woodard. The harsh numbers are complicated by other spending issues that commissioners have yet to decide. Those include whether to enact a gasoline tax, whether to pursue a light rail system and whether they can work out agreements with Clearwater and St. Petersburg to put together a countywide traffic signal system.

Woodard projected $502.4-million in revenues for the county's general fund and $485.5-million in expenses. That sounds good, except that Woodard says the county needs to have a reserve of $41.5-million. That's when the $24.6-million gap appears.

The county's cost to "open its doors" next year, operating the same services as this year, is expected to increase 6.7 percent, Woodard told commissioners.

That's because of inflation, raises for county workers, and other expected cost increases, such as the county's contributions to workers' retirement funds and health benefits.

Spratt has already told department leaders working for him that they must reduce costs by 2 percent for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and turn in a budget proposal for next year that has no increase over this year's initial budget. That means they'll have to find ways to cut.

"We're going to have to think of better ways to do business, leaner ways," Spratt told commissioners.

If county departments make those cuts, the budget picture for next year looks much rosier, with county officials projecting $6.6-million more in revenues than expenses. But county officials fear that money will disappear fast as state lawmakers shift to the counties the cost of programs they once paid for.

Last year, the county passed a total budget of $1.5-billion that did not increase the countywide property tax rate. County officials did, however, increase the rate on the separate property tax that residents outside cities pay. That tax pays for services that only they receive, such as sheriff's patrols.

Commissioners said the county's constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, elections supervisor and tax collector, need to make the same commitment to cut costs.

"The pain needs to be shared," Welch said.