Pinellas officials: more budget cuts could hurt basic services
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04/05/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche


photo by Kate Bradshaw, WMNF

For city and county governments, budget season lasts pretty much all year. Today, Pinellas County officials heard from heads of several departments on how years of cuts have affected their ability to function, and how they’ll impact county services in coming years. Several times, officials brought up the intense storms of the past week to stress that some services can only see so many cuts before personnel shortages end up costing the county more. Emergency Management Director Sally Bishop said this time around, there were enough boots on the ground.

"The county certainly had the capability of responding and did so."

Bishop said last week’s storms pale in comparison to what would be needed in a hurricane scenario. She said when it came to such things as debris removal, reductions in the heavy equipment budget may prove challenging, since the county now has to rent items like front loaders in order to clear debris.

"One thing that we've discovered in this last go round is, you know, the need to rent some heavy equipment for debris clearance because we've cut back on equipment and some of the bigger departments have that assignment."

Bishop’s was one of more than a dozen presentations from heads of county departments, including planning, tourist development and animal services. A number of them reported that this is the first time in several years that their budgets won’t be smaller than the prior year. Bishop said there were no reductions in the county emergency management budget in 2011, but that follows three years of cuts that nearly hacked the department budget in half. What’s more, she said, proposed axing of state and federal grants may be on the horizon.

"Of course, the federal level cuts are right now, what they're looking at is eliminating long standing grants that have come down through the state for emergency management. On whether or not they survive the cuts or not, it remains to be seen. And of course, the same thing at the state level, with the proposed elimination of the trust funds that's another half of the grants that have funded us for a very long time."

Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard said after nearly five consecutive years of agonizing reductions, economic squeeze on county funds appears to be loosening. He said it’s impossible to know for sure whether a rebound is around the corner.

"We continue to be in unprecedented economic times. It is still unclear when we have reached the bottom. We've been telling you now for the last year or so that we think the bottom is forming but we're not sure that we're at the bottom level."

He said the County Administrator’s office assumes a six percent decrease in property tax revenues previously forecast for the current budget year, but the picture may look a little better for the next fiscal year. He cautioned the Board of County Commissioners that a projected leveling off in property tax revenues comes with the caveat that the county’s glum real estate market paints a less rosy picture.

"We think, looking one year out beyond that, that it will be at zero. Based upon some of the sales that we've seen in Pinellas County since the beginning of this year, that zero percent assumption may be optimistic. We may actually find ourselves facing yet another year of decrease in our value of property."

The past several budget years have seen major reductions in staffing throughout county government, as well as cuts in equipment and services. Woodard said he’s concerned that it might get to a point where the county is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

"We've also noted that reductions in the central services departments can lead to added costs in other departments. So we have to be very careful about reductions in purchasing and budget and the safety area and so forth."

Woodard said there’s another concern, and that’s personnel. Over the past several years, county employees who get to keep their jobs have faced mounting workloads with no chance of raises. County Administrator Bob LaSala said it might be in the county’s interest to bite the bullet and invest in its workforce.

"We have far less boots on the ground. We have far less hands. We have far less minds focusing on the tasks and various responsibilities of county government. If we don't maximize that intellectual capital by reinvesting it, just as we reinvest in maintaining our physical infrastructure it will deteriorate."

Woodard said it’ll be tough to keep high quality talent on staff if and when the private sector starts adding more jobs.

"As the economy does recover the private sector will recover more quickly than the public sector. And there is a concern that we will start to lose some of our staff and our talent to the private sector as the economy continues to recover."

Today’s rainy weather was a common theme throughout. County Commissioner Norm Roche said there’s only so much staff the county can cut before they can’t cut anymore, especially in emergency services. He asked County Administrator Bob LaSala if the county’s reached that point yet.

Roche:

"Is it fair to say that we're there? Or we're close?"

LaSala:

"I don't know. We're close, we're very close."

Roche:

"I just want that out. I just want folks to understand that in the public that we're close, particularly in these sort of storms that we've been going through and folks are looking around for someone to come clean up the yard or fix the road, and things of that nature. We're reaching that point, you know, where we've got to make it very clear, go to the phone book and call someone, right?"

Pinellas County faces an estimated budget shortfall of $21.5 million in for the next fiscal year. Much like the past five years, the county is looking at ways to increase efficiency as well as more cuts. Tomorrow they will hold an eTownhall meeting during which residents can ask questions and voice opinions on the county budget. It will feature the county commissioners and the county administrator, who will engage directly with those who call or write in. For more information, call (727), 464-300.

Previous WMNF news stories on Pinellas County

More information about the eTownHall meeting, as provided by Pinellas County:

eTownHall: Budget 2012 will be held Wednesday, April 6, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Residents can blog, tweet, follow the blog and view live video online or on TV. Blogs received early will be considered for the live event and the blog will remain open throughout the event.

County commissioners are asking for the public's participation as they look at cutting $21.5 million in the 2012 budget.

There are five ways to participate.

  1. Log onto Twitter. Use #pinellasbudget in the message.

  2. Blog on www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall. THE BLOG OPENS 9 A.M. MONDAY, APRIL 4.

  3. Call in during the event. Dial (888) 886-6603, then enter conference number 16403#.

  4. View the event at www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall.

  5. Watch the event live on PCC-TV (Bright House Channel 622, Knology Channel 18 or Verizon Channel 44).

For more information, go to www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall, call (727) 464-3000 or watch a video at http://www.youtube.com/pcctv1.

Computers will be dedicated to the participation in the eTownHall at three public libraries: Tarpon Springs, Seminole Community Library and St. Petersburg Public Library,Johnson Branch.

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Comments

Look harder...

Hay… I’ve got an idea!!! Pinellas County averages 1 public library per 35,000 citizens… while Hillsborough County averages 1 public library for every 42,600 citizens!!! Pinellas County can eliminate the cost of maintenance… servicing… headcounts… of FIVE libraries and still provide the same quality of service to its citizens that Hillsborough County provides to theirs. PLUS… they can capitalize on the monies acquired from the sales of assets, property and parking areas of those 5 libraries!!! OH YEAH… and what about those “red-light camera” thingies… didn’t they have a price tag of $5.2 MILLION??? I don’t know guys… I’m not so sure you’re looking hard enough…

PendergrASS

You continue to froth mental diarrhea with each posting (at least you're consistent!). Only a (insert insulting put-down here) like you would suggest eliminating valuable public resources like libraries. (sigh!)

PainindaASS...

DUDE… at least I didn’t suggest we burn the books!!! And speaking of diarrhea… the way the government is spending… books will soon be cheaper and easier to get than toilet paper!!! Can you say “outhouse reading material”???

cut...cut...cut

yup, we can cut our way to financial health!!! just how ignorant is that? these people cut the budgets for the past 5 years... then complain we have to reduce budgets 'cause we don't have the money. this stuff costs something, we can't keep racing to the bottom, the lowest price, the lowest paid, the lowest cost - and expect to have a decent quality of life and effective emergency services. the continuous drive for lower taxes is killing us.

Cut if you must

Cutting expenses is an excellent way of reaching solvency and improving financial health. The wisest advice I can offer anyone is to reject the advice of fools like james and look to someone qualified to offer a realistic and truthful estimation.

YES to what JAMES said !

Who needs the "wise advice" of an unthinker like "Notjames" ?!?! Sadly, EVERYTHING that james wrote is the unfortunate truth of reality in our lives today. We just need to take an honest look at American culture/society to recognize that our systems of capitalistic-corporate dominance have proven to be failed models. During our lifetimes: the rich have gotten richer; the middle class and poor have gotten poorer; jobs have been eliminated in America, and jobs have been created in Asia and Central America; politicians spend increasingly greater money on re-election; unknown millions of innocent people slaughtered throughout the world in the name of American "foreign interests"; corporate lobbyists writing laws in government; war after war after war; disgusting growth and expansion of "defense" industry (death, bombs, guns, killing); takeover and elimination of local small businesses by Walmart, Mcdonalds, Home Depot, Applebees, CVS, 7/11, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.; LOSS of the American DREAM. Americans must get started (now!)making drastic changes to our own political and economic structures in order to achieve a peaceful and sustainable future. Is it already too late?

Run away and hide!!!

Yes April… it is already much too late. The only answer left is for you and James to gather your friends… dust off your passports… and scatter to the four winds. I’m sure you will blow into one of the hundreds of countries that don’t have death, bombs, guns or killing (or McDonalds). Please… escape while you can!!!