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City lowers tax rate more than expected

Council members eventually passed the city budget after another marathon session Thursday night. But not before hearing some creative solutions from residents.

Christine Marriott offered one way for Sand Key residents to save money and send their kids to school in style: secede from Clearwater.

Wearing a T-shirt that read "Sand Key Tea Party Tax Revolt," Marriott said "80 percent of the residents" have talked about forming their own little city on the southernmost portion of Clearwater Beach.

"We could send our children to private schools; we could send them in limos and still save money," said Marriott, who has watched taxes on her second home jump 300 percent since 2002.

Upset about the crippling costs of homeowners insurance, fuel prices and ever-increasing tax bills, Marriott told the council residents are "sick of being obnoxiously taxed."

Other money-saving suggestions from residents, who marched to the microphone one by one Thursday, included laying off employees, cutting services, scaling back landscaping projects and eliminating public arts funding.

"We're in a crisis," said David Ewart.

The council did none of this, but managed to find some ways to cut taxes even further than initially planned.

In the end, it lowered the city millage rate a little more than proposed, to 5.2088. The council first considered a millage reduction from the current 5.753 to 5.42. That was lowered to 5.25 before Thursday's meeting, and lowered again to the approved 5.2088.

A homeowner whose property has an average taxable value of $143,000 would have paid $822.68 a year if the millage had remained at 5.753, said Tina Wilson, city budget director. Under the new rate, the same homeowner's city taxes will be $744.86, a savings of $77.82.

To make the cut, the city needed to reduce spending by an additional $2.16-million. The council agreed to use Penny for Pinellas funding to pay for the sailing center expansion project ($400,000); to impose a 1 percent salary savings in all departments ($500,000); reduce contributions to a streets and sidewalk fund ($500,000); and use reserve money to give Ruth Eckerd Hall a requested extra $300,000.

The council already planned to make these changes on Thursday, but then added another at the suggestion of Councilman Bill Jonson.

It decided to use a parking fund to cover costs for most of the city's lifeguard program. The general budget initially was going to cover the $450,000 cost because - in the next few years - the parking fund will not be able to sustain the costs.

"I'm hopeful that we'll become more efficient in the next years and be able to absorb those costs at that point in time," Jonson said.

The city's overall $399-million spending plan kicks in Oct. 1, and city leaders say they want to quickly form a "citizens tax force" that would help continue making budget cuts.

"I promise I won't stop and the rest of the council won't stop until we make changes," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "And at the end of the year, if we have money left over, that in turn will help the citizens."

Residents around the county have turned out in record numbers this budget season, packing meeting halls, demanding budget cuts.

In Clearwater, particularly, residents were upset because the city is expected to bring in an extra $12-million in taxes and fees for the coming year. City leaders, though, say that money will cover about $12-million in rising fuel, insurance and utility costs, as well as increases in employee pension plans.

Citizens Task Force

Though the City Council unanimously approved its fiscal year 2006-07 budget late Thursday night, that doesn't mean it is done making changes to it. Mayor Frank Hibbard says in the coming weeks he wants to form a geographically diverse task force composed of residents who will help city leaders pick through the spending plan and help make cuts and even additions.

Hibbard said the task force will probably need months to comb through the city's $399-million budget, but officials will still have time to make changes in it.

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