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BUDGET CUT AS MILLAGE REDUCED

The millage rate is spared, but $120M in spending cuts could mean county layoffs.

With most of their stickiest decisions out of the way, Hillsborough County commissioners enjoyed the least raucous public hearing so far on next year's budget Tuesday.

Commissioners tentatively approved an overall county millage of 10.7614 mills, or $10.76 of taxes for every $1,000 worth of property. If approved next week, it will be the 15th consecutive year of millage reductions by the county.

They also approved an overall spending plan of about $3.5 billion. That includes more than $120 million in spending cuts compared to last year, and is expected to result in scores of layoffs at County Center.

"It's been a very tough series of discussions that we've had with the board coming off of the kinds of budgets we've had in the past," said County Administrator Pat Bean.

A final public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at County Center.

Bean started off the summer proposing $144 million in spending cuts compared to last year due to falling property tax values and voter approved tax reforms. The commission has acted to fend off about $20 million of those cuts, as residents turned out in force at earlier hearings to fight reductions in park hours, after-school programs, day care inspections and animal cruelty investigations, among other cuts.

In many cases, commissioners agreed to charge fees where residents said they would be willing to pay them.

There were still some concerns voiced by the public Tuesday. In particular, residents spoke out against looming cuts in in-home assistance for the frail elderly and at the Bakas Equestrian Center, which provides therapeutic programs for the disabled.

"I've heard nonverbal children say their first words to the horse they're riding," said Denise Andretta, advocating on behalf of Bakas.

But those cutbacks are not slated until 2011, and commissioners are expected to address them during the next year.

Commissioners may also yet address who should oversee community development plans, the independent Planning Commission or the county's Planning and Growth Management Department, or both.

Both agencies create tailored development guidelines for communities that request them, one example being the Lutz plan, where residents wanted to retain a rural ambiance. And both agencies had suggested slashing the effort in response to mandated spending reductions.

Their leaders were asked to come up with a solution to save the program, but have been unable agree about how to accomplish that.

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

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