Pinellas commissioners grapple with budget cuts

02/05/08 Seán Kinane
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Today the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners discussed how to deal with an anticipated $50-million in budget cuts that will occur because Florida voters approved Amendment 1 a week ago.

Pinellas County Budget Director John Woodruff proposed two tiers of budget cuts. One level of cuts would be for programs that are considered mandatory or essential. Programs that are non-mandatory or administrative would face higher cuts. Woodruff suggested that the entire budgets of all constitutional agencies, such as sheriff and tax collector be considered within the lower tier of budget cuts, which may amount to no change from last year’s budget. But several commissioners, led by Calvin Harris, disagreed.

“No, no, that can’t work. That cannot work. Because what you’re saying is that Amendment 1 only affects some of us. And that the rest of us can just go on with life as we’ve always lived it, with no revenue shortfall, no cuts, no change in service delivery, nothing, just come in, and that cannot work.”

Since the agencies of constitutional officers make up about 50 percent of the county’s general fund budget, it would be nearly impossible to not cut their budgets, according to Commissioner Kenneth Welsh.

“I don’t understand how you can say we’re going to have $40-50 million less in general fund revenue, and tell the Constitutionals who make up half of that expense that they can come in with the same budget as they did last year.”

Woodruff told WMNF that one reason he recommended the lower cuts for constitutional agencies was to avoid potential appeals. He said Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet would make the final decision if, for example, the Pinellas County Sheriff, disagreed with the budget allocated by the Pinellas Board of Commissioners.

“Each constitutional officer has statutory language that relates to what that appeal process would be like. They’re not all the same. … Most of the appeal process takes place in Tallahassee.”

Bob Stewart, chair of the Pinellas County Commission, agreed that constitutional agencies would have to face budget reductions based on their proportion of allocations from the general fund.

“Definitely they’re going to have to face it. They’re not going to do it very willingly, I suspect. But nevertheless, when the voters said we want a reduction in taxes and we want to pay less property tax and give less ad velorum to the government, they didn’t go and specify which parts of the government should be cut and which shouldn’t. So what we’re doing at the County Commission level is saying we’re treating this as a level field, and that everyone should participate in the reductions. So we will ask all of the constitutional officers to do their part in identifying 4 percent or whatever the dollar figure amounts to.”

The budget reductions are expected to be about 10% of the roughly $500-million the county collects in property taxes. According to Commissioner Calvin Harris, the fair way to make budget adjustments would be equal cuts across the board.

Commission Chair Bob Stewart said the budget cutting process has already begun.

“Anything else that’s in the non-mandatory category is going to have to be reduced. And we're starting right now by reducing the current budget, this year’s operating budget. We’re asking all the departments to spend 2 percent less than was budgeted this year. so that will begin to edge us into the savings in the process.”

The commissioners also heard preliminary results from a poll of 800 county residents. The results may be used to decide which programs to cut and which to save. The public can take part in seven budget information sessions between April and June before the county’s tentative budget will be presented to the Board on July 15.

Learn more:

Pinellas County Budget Office

Pinellas Board of County Commissioners

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