Citizens weigh in on Pinellas County steep budget cuts

03/04/10 Concetta DeLuco
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In the face of a steep budget cut, Pinellas County citizens and government officials came together last night. The first of three budget meetings to discuss the county’s options was held at Palm Harbor University High School. The result was mixed views and heated debates.

Pinellas County faces a $60 million budget cut for the 2011 fiscal year which begins this October 1st. County Administrator, Robert LaSala, said the deficit comes from less property tax revenue, the main source of income for county departments that do not have fees associated with them.

LaSala said each county department faces a 15% decrease in their budget, but have been asked to come up with reduction plans of 30% or more. LaSala said he acknowledges the potentially harmful effect the lack of funds will have on particular departments, like Parks and Recreation. He did not sugar coat the situation.

Many in attendance spoke on behalf of Brooker Creek, a favored wilderness area that may suffer dramatically from the budget crunch. Citizen Barbara Schultz offered several solutions that could help keep the education center open.

With a current budget of $238 million, the Sheriff’s office is challenged with a $30 million reduction. Sheriff Jim Coates' department failed to meet the $8 million cut for the current year. Instead, that money came from the county’s stabilization fund, reducing it by half. Under similar arguments, Chief Deputy Robert Gualtieri said he is not sure the sheriff’s department will be able to meet the new budget cut either.

One citizen, Amy Wallan, did not agree with the Sheriff’s department's current expenditures.

Not every department’s income is based directly on property taxes. The utilities department, for example, pays for itself through the fees it charges its customers. However, LaSala said with the increase in foreclosures and water conservation being pushed over the past few years, profit from sales has decreased dramatically. Kevin Becotte is the Assistant Director of the Utilities Department.

Carol Lee’s opinion emphasized the diversity of the crowd’s opinions. She was livid with the way the county commission handled the budget, and unlike many of her peers she pushed for a bigger budget cut.

Scott Fisher is equally distraught, but for different reasons.

Despite the differences shared by the citizens and the county officials, the commissioners shared a sentiment similar to Commissioner Karen Seel.

Pinellas County has dealt with budget cuts over the past three consecutive years and La Sala said the near future does not look any better. Even with the $60 million cut, a $20 million deficit still remains. The next public meeting will be held on March 11 at Osceola High School.

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