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COUNTY SAYS IT MAY CUT 480 JOBS

On Hillsborough's chopping block to cut taxes: new libraries, parks and fire stations.

As many as 138 full-time county workers will have to be laid off, and scores of other jobs eliminated, to meet state-mandated property tax cuts that take effect in November, Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean said Monday.

In all, Bean is proposing to shed 480 full- and part-time jobs - from parks landscapers to code enforcement officers - in an effort to slash $55.9-million in spending next year.

Meanwhile, the county will cancel construction of 10 new fire stations, seven new libraries and more than a half dozen parks projects to avoid hiring new employees to run them.

Bean said she took pains to spread the proposed cuts among departments and avoid scaling back critical services. Overall, county spending will decline 3.7 percent compared with last year, to $3.68-billion, which includes money from property and sales taxes, as well as other taxes, fees and direct charges for things like water service.

"Despite these reductions, we as the Hillsborough County team will work as hard as we can to maintain quality service to our citizens," Bean said.

Hillsborough County currently has about 6,000 full- and part-time employees. Bean said the county will help laid-off employees try to find other, similar jobs within the government. Counseling and resume help will be offered to those who don't.

Most of the employees who will be laid off have yet to be identified. Bean said she hopes to give them the news by the end of the month.

State lawmakers, responding to a taxpayer revolt caused by skyrocketing property taxes, mandated this spring that county and city governments roll back their property tax collections to last year's levels. Hillsborough was ordered to cut back an additional 5 percent.

To achieve that, Bean's budget proposal would cut the county's property tax rate by 1.5 mills, or about $150 for every $100,000 of taxable value.

Some perspective: County commissioners have long bragged about decreasing Hillsborough's tax rate every year for the past 14 years. The cumulative total of those rollbacks: 1.58 mills.

A few groups of workers account for big chunks of the proposed cuts.

Part-time employees at parks and in libraries will be hit particularly hard under the budget proposal, accounting for 223 of the eliminated jobs. All but 22 of those jobs are currently filled.

Recreation leagues will be asked to hire their own umpires and maintenance crews. Librarians will have to return books to their proper shelves between answering reference questions.

Nearly 80 workers in the Planning & Growth Management division that issues building permits are getting walking papers, though their departure is largely tied to sharp declines in home construction.

"Pat did a pretty solid job of having no department take the big hit," said commission Chairman Jim Norman.

Commissioners usually spend much of the summer working on their budget. This year, they hold their first workshop on Wednesday and hope to set their tentative tax rate July 31, even though this year's talks offer extraordinary challenges.

"We're essentially squeezing in more than a month of work into less than a week," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "I certainly feel a sense of urgency due to the expedited process."

Commissioners ultimately will decide what cuts to make. Other highlights of the proposal include:

- Trimming spending for the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and the Environmental Protection Commission by 10 percent. A proposal to eliminate the EPC wetlands division may substantially meet that target.

- Pay raises for county employees that will average 3.5 percent, compared to from 5 to 7 percent in recent years.

- Cutting spending on nonprofit groups by 25 percent. Two groups account for much of that slice: the folks that run the county's public access and education access channels, which would lose all of their combined $874,443 in funding.

"I think we're going to go out of business," said Ann Goldenberg, executive director of the Tampa Education Cable Consortium, which broadcasts School Board meetings, runs a math homework hotline and offers other educational programming, and gets half of its public funding through the county. "It's devastating."

Tampa Bay Community Network, which runs the public access station, has been a long-standing target of commissioners who object to some of its programming. Its executive director, Louise Thompson, noted that the two stations' budgets are dwarfed by the county's government channel, which has a $1.7-million operating budget.

"I really don't know where this is coming from," Thompson said. "I can't guess except to say that our community producers put on our channels programming that is sometimes critical of government."

Bean said she gave priority to nonprofit groups that provide "basic human service" and "enable self-sufficiency," as opposed to those focused on "quality of life" issues.

Her budget proposal also sets aside about $30-million for next year to help cover the shortfall if voters approve a new super exemption for homesteaded property owners in January.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

FAST FACTS

Budget fallout

The cost of state-mandated cuts: $55.9-million

Full-time layoffs anticipated: Up to 138

Full- and part-time jobs to be cut: 480

Overall proposed county budget: $3.68-billion

Decrease: 3.7 percent

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