CLEARWATER — City coffers will grow by 6 percent next year with the money slated to pay for new positions, continue investment in capital projects and cover rising expenses.
City Manager Bill Horne said the proposed $468 million budget for fiscal year 2016-17 does not have the luxuries of the prerecession era but nevertheless represents a healthy government operating within its means.
"There's really nothing sexy about this budget," he said.
The City Council will give final approval to the budget in September, but at this point residents are guaranteed to not see a rise in the property tax rate. The council last week set the tentative tax rate at about $5.15 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. That marks the eighth straight year without an increase, meaning the owner of a home valued at $100,000 after exemptions would pay Clearwater $515 in property taxes.
The proposed budget includes an additional 44 positions, including seven new employees in Parks and Recreation to support the growth in sports tourism in Clearwater.
The Police Department is also set to create five new positions for a Community Problem Response Team in District III in the eastern portion of the city.
The city would spend 12 percent more than last year on capital improvements, with $78 million slated for various projects. The $2.8 million Morningside Recreation Center replacement project is slated to receive an extra $250,000 for the outdoor pool; about a fourth of the $6.4 million Seminole Boat Launch improvement project will be paid for in next year's budget; and the city plans to purchase a new fire boat and fund Crest Lake Park improvements.
The city also wants to replace the Gas System buildings on Myrtle Avenue next fiscal year — an $11.3 million endeavor.
This growth is possible in part because of an expected 7.8 percent jump in property tax revenues due to the continued recovery of the housing market.
Pinellas County is in its fourth consecutive year of rising property values after the dramatic downfall that began in 2008. The Clearwater market alone is projected to see nearly $700 million in added value this year.
This stability was enough for council member Hoyt Hamilton to say last week he had no interest in raising taxes. Once the tentative rate is set, the council can lower, but not raise it during budget discussions.
Questions did arise about the unpredictable expenses that may come next year related to the city's exploration of aerial transit technologies.
City consultants will be evaluating two technologies that have been pitched to the city — a gondola cable car system by St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair and a version of SkyTran, a fledgling magnetic levitation system from local advocate Tom Nocera.
And while Mayor George Cretekos said he is happy the council voted not to raise the tax rate, he warned his colleagues that it does not give the city much of a safety net.
If council members advocate for adding projects or other priorities to the budget over the next couple of months before final adoption, the funds are going to have to come from somewhere.
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The city is already seeing a steady rise in health care and pension plan costs, with a 4 percent increase set for next year in medical care for employees.
"If we're going to add things, we'll also have to cut things," Cretekos said. "A lot of people have been saying the economy is going better, there's lots of construction going on, the city is overflowing in cash and that isn't the case.
"The one thing we're never sure of is the pension reform and health care costs. Whenever we're adding programs, that means we may have to add employees, and that cost is always never remembered."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.