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COUNTY APPROVES BUDGET

There are $120 million in cutbacks and a slightly lower tax rate in next year's plan.

Hillsborough County commissioners on Thursday wrapped up next year's $3.5 billion spending plan, including more than $120 million in cuts and a slight decrease in the property tax rate.

Commissioners unanimously approved both the budget and a county millage of 10.7614 mills, or $10.76 of taxes for every $1,000 worth of property. The rate is a slight decrease from last year and represents the 15th straight year of millage reductions.

On the last day of budget negotiations, commissioners also mitigated cuts to the county's internal performance auditor's staff. This comes only days after the auditor released a report about questionable executive pay raises - without talking to the executives in question.

Most of the biggest spending decreases had already been made. After property values plummeted and sales tax collections dropped off, County Administrator Pat Bean outlined $144 million in cuts next year. About $20 million were offset by higher fees and by restructuring debt.

The cuts will result in nearly 600 layoffs at County Center next year.

"This has been the most challenging budget process we've ever had," Bean said, noting that many agencies still face steep cuts in 2011. "We've got some horrific cuts that we've got to address somehow."

The most heated discussion focused on internal performance auditor Jim Barnes.

This week, Barnes released a report showing Bean and county attorney Renee Lee gave themselves pay raises without commissioners' approval. But Barnes was under fire himself for rushing the report and not seeking comment from Bean or Lee.

His office initially faced a cut of two jobs, but commissioners on Thursday voted 4-3 to cut only a vacant position.

"By neutering the office down to two, we make it, I think, ineffective," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, noting that Barnes "at times can be obtuse."

Others questioned the wisdom of increasing staffing at an office that has been criticized for an inability to work with other departments.

"Frankly, I think Mr. Barnes should feel fortunate that he still has a job," said commission Chairman Ken Hagan.

Commissioners also restored $134,000 in cuts to the county's drug treatment program, and restored four planners at two agencies to create community development plans.

An effort by Commissioner Jim Norman to reconsider eliminating the county's legislative delegation office was turned down.

Cuts to several key services in the 2011 budget were put off for later. Those include: the Bakas Equestrian Center, in-home assistance to the frail and elderly and funding for nonprofit organizations.

Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3436 or llogan@sptimes.com.

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