In his first budget leading Clearwater’s administration, City Manager Jon Jennings proposes using record property tax revenue to improve public services and address inefficiencies rather than decreasing the tax rate.
Responsibility of streets, sidewalks and medians used to be spread among multiple departments, resulting in a backlog of repairs that Jennings took over when he joined the city in November. For the 2023 budget, the city manager has created a Public Works department that he said will streamline repair and maintenance. He also launched an Office of Innovation, which he said will make the city more proactive on everything from artificial intelligence to resident complaints and traffic enhancements.
“We cannot continue to ask our staff to do more with less, and because frankly, the return simply isn’t there,” Jennings said at a work session this week.
The $652 million budget for fiscal year 2023, 4% larger than last year, proposes the same tax rate that has been in place since 2018. Because property values increased 13.2 percent, residents will see an increase in their tax bills.
The City Council voted Thursday to set the tentative tax rate no higher than $5.95 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. The council will hold a budget workshop on Aug. 2 and will vote to adopt the budget in September.
The proposed tax rate will bring in $86 million in revenue, $9.3 million more than last year, according to budget manager Kayleen Kastel.
The budget calls for 62 new positions, but by eliminating vacancies and moving other staff between funding sources, Jennings will be creating 33 new positions.
With the city’s $84 million renovation of Coachman Park expected to open next year, Jennings is proposing 14 new staff in Parks and Recreation to cover downtown. His budget also proposes hiring 10 police officers to focus on Clearwater Beach as staffing levels have not kept up with demand from tourists and new hotel development.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he was concerned about not lowering the tax rate at a time when property values, and costs of living, are soaring.
He said he wants to further discuss staffing levels at the Aug. 4 workshop.
“With all the inflation and everything else, we’ve had a windfall this year, I just believe that we should not be at (the same tax rate),” Hibbard said at this week’s work session. “I think our residents deserve some break.”
Council member Kathleen Beckman advocated for maintaining the tax rate because the city is so behind on obligations like sidewalk repairs and employee wages. Major projects are also in the pipeline, which will require more staffing and resources, she said.
The city is preparing to design a new City Hall. Jennings’ budget includes the reopening of restrooms across the city and extending hours at a library. Council member Mark Bunker agreed, noting the need for more police to patrol the beach and increased staff needed for projects like the new downtown waterfront park.
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“Our new city manager has a lot of ambitious tasks to improve the city, and I think we should support him,” Bunker said. “I don’t think now is the time to be trimming back.”