Hillsborough County faces another budget squeeze
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07/15/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:

Well, thanks to our listener-supporters, WMNF may have narrowly avoided downsizing, but one can’t say the same for Hillsborough County. The County Commission is facing more tough decisions on how to deal with a bleak financial outlook.

Hillsborough County’s budget faces a $65 million gap. Today county budget director Eric Johnson told the commissioners that almost 300 positions will need to be cut from the county payroll to help make up for it. Last year, that number was 571. Johnson said the cuts aren’t as drastic as they sound.

"We're still cutting a significant number of positions, but fortunately an overwhelmingly number of those are vacant. So, there's the opportunity to cut costs to change how we do business, but limit the impact on our employees."

He added that since the county government is the second largest employer in Hillsborough County, trailing only the school district, they’re looking at ways to assist those losing their jobs. He said a variety of factors contribute to the County’s dwindling coffers, but the housing downturn is causing major strain.

"The value of the property of Hillsborough County declined over a calendar year; over 2009 by $8 billion. If we go back to the peak in fiscal '08's budget, we've had a 26 percent reduction of property or a 23 billion dollar reduction."

Couple that with recent tax reform, Johnson said, and you have a perfect storm.

"We've had two years of tax reform followed by two years of recession. As a result of the recession as you can see the last two bars in the chart, we've lost about $160 million net of property tax revenue."

But Johnson did say that one source of revenue for the county is apparently growing.

"We do see sales tax starting to pick up, and sales tax move up long before property taxes start to recover."

The budget director said there won’t be a significant reduction in county services, but county employees who do keep their jobs can expect a heavier workload. At today’s workshop commissioners also got to flag certain items for discussion. Among these was funding for the Arts Council, which saw its budget go from $809,000 last year to $487,000 for fiscal year 2011. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the Council is too valuable to see such a sizable cut.

"The Arts Council, when you take a look at the amount of economic impact that they had and when you go back to 2008, they've had over $297 million impact, and generated $11 million to our local government. And when I was going through the budget, they are actually facing a near 39 percent decrease in revenue allocations. I think that if we go through, I mean I don't want to belay what we're going through all the different points here, but the amount of value and economic impacts that the arts has on our community, I think is extraordinary."

Commissioner Rose Ferlita agreed. Among the positions on the chopping block was that of land-use ombudsman, which is currently held by Maricela Medrano. The Tampa Tribune reports that many consider her valuable because she is bilingual and helps Spanish speakers on land-use issues. Ferlita asked the board to consider keeping Medrano on.

"And I guess specifically because the fact that there is such a large Hispanic population in my district, I have gotten inundated if you would, on requests to look again at the opportunity to reinstate the land use ombudsman."

The county may also do away with furlough days in fiscal year 2011.

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