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MORE COUNTY LAYOFFS POSSIBLE

Commissioners begin debating the budget, restoring many items proposed for cuts.

Hillsborough government could face more layoffs than those announced this week if county commissioners continue on the road they headed down Wednesday.

Meeting in budget talks for the first time since state lawmakers ordered property tax cutbacks, commissioners took direct aim at many of the proposed reductions designed to cut $55.9-million in spending next year.

There was little discussion, however, of ways to offset the cost of programs commissioners want restored. So now County Administrator Pat Bean will have to come up with further cuts, and that may mean even more layoffs than the 137 already proposed.

Call it habit. In past years, commissioners had the luxury of increasing spending in pet areas because of swollen property tax proceeds. Now legislators are forcing them to tighten their belts.

"This is a very different year for them," Bean said after the workshop.

Individual commissioners, needing only one other board member to back them, asked Bean to look at restoring at least partial funding to several nonprofit groups she recommended cutting. The list included the groups that run the county's public and education access channels, which together receive $874,443.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita noted that most other groups were given opportunities to trim their spending, and some will get increases, while spending on the two access channels would be eliminated entirely.

"Right now, we're just chopping their legs out from under them with no notice," Ferlita said.

Commission Chairman Jim Norman strenuously objected to Bean's recommendation that the board direct $9.5-million in communications taxes that would have paid for new fire stations to other government expenses. County management and budget director Eric Johnson called it a temporary move to ease the cuts.

Build now for less

If the fire stations are postponed, the county could delay hiring new firefighters and medics who are paid primarily through property taxes.

Norman suggested building some of the parks, libraries and fire stations Bean wants to delay, arguing that the ailing building market would allow the county to command bargain construction prices. He said the savings could pay for skeleton staffs to run them until the property tax picture improves.

"We're in a soft market," Norman said. "We ought to take advantage of that."

Some board members suggested sparing individual projects that residents have been eagerly awaiting.

But Commissioner Ken Hagan argued that would result in some projects leapfrogging others on previously established priority lists. So he suggested either cutting or restoring all the libraries, parks and fire stations, as least for discussion.

"I've got a serious concern that we open up a Pandora's box when we start cherry-picking libraries and fire stations," Hagan said.

Commissioners were light on suggestions for saving money, with Mark Sharpe urging Bean to continue talks with other governments about consolidating similar services. Al Higginbotham renewed his suggestion that commissioners freeze their own pay and other expenses, while acknowledging the move would be mostly symbolic.

Sports funds restored

In the largest dollar value suggestion, Ferlita suggested commissioners reject a proposed spending increase for the nonprofit Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which promotes amateur athletics. Commissioners had tentatively agreed to increase spending on the agency from $450,000 to $900,000 with a mix of property and tourist taxes.

Ferlita said she didn't see how the increase could be justified given the cuts being forced on other nonprofits.

Commissioners Hagan and Norman, arguing that the organization has helped the county land big-time college and other amateur tournaments that pour millions into the local economy, moved to give the Sports Commission even more money.

Commissioners will hold another workshop today and make tentative decisions on what stays and what goes on Tuesday. Public hearings follow in September.

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

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