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TIGHT BUDGET, TOUGH DECISIONS

Clearwater officials vote to raise the city's property tax rate and close a recreation center.

One after another, 10 people - a goodly number for a budget hearing - appeared before the City Council with the same request: Please don't close the Morningside Recreation Center.

It was a common theme Thursday night as the council voted on the city's new tax rate. In the end, council members said the outdated rec center in a 1960s-era building will have to close because of budget cuts, although it's possible that a new center might be built.

The council also considered closing the East Branch Library to lower the tax rate, but that idea failed on a 3-2 vote.

For the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, the council voted 3-2 to raise Clearwater's property tax rate by 9 percent, from $4.72 to $5.15 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Because of a 13 percent drop in property values, the city will still collect less revenue - $44 million compared with $46 million this year.

City officials figured that, to keep the tax rate the same, they would have to shutter almost all of Clearwater's libraries and rec centers.

The owner of a homesteaded $200,000 property will pay $87 more next year. The owner of a non-homesteaded $200,000 property will pay an average of $46 less because, in most cases, the property's value will have dropped.

Council members George Cretekos, John Doran and Carlen Petersen voted for the new tax rate. Paul Gibson and Frank Hibbard opposed it, calling for a lower tax rate and for the East Branch Library to be closed.

They'll hold a final public hearing on the budget on Sept. 17.

The new budget eliminates nearly 90 city jobs, freezes wages, and closes the Morningside center and the Harborview Center. It continues funding the North Greenwood Library, the Jolley Trolley and a second rescue unit at Countryside Fire Station.

Morningside pleas

Many residents of southeast Clearwater are disappointed that the aging Morningside center is slated to close at the end of this month. They said they and their children participate in exercise groups, gymnastics and art classes there.

"If you close it, it's gone forever," said Newell Phipps. "It's an important part of our neighborhood."

"For the 12 years that I've been in the neighborhood, a new recreation center's been promised to us," said Mark Blanchard.

Denise DerGarabedian said the next-nearest recreation facility, the Long Center, is crowded and noisy and has little parking. "It's not conducive to some of the classes we have," she said.

But city officials said keeping the Morningside center open is no longer worth the cost.

Kevin Dunbar, director of parks and recreation, said the building wasn't originally designed to be a rec center, and it is beginning to deteriorate. He estimated the city would have to plow $70,000 into it to keep it functional for the short term.

Clearwater is setting aside about $3 million in future Penny for Pinellas sales taxes to build a new Morningside Recreation Center sometime between 2010 and 2020. But Penny money pays to build public facilities, not operate them. The city says it can't afford to operate such a center right now.

The mayor noted that Morningside's swimming pool, playground, and tennis and basketball courts will stay as they are.

"It's not a matter of having the capital to build the building. That's not the issue. The issue at hand is the operations and maintenance," Hibbard said. "To build something without knowing that you have the money to operate it is irresponsible."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

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