Pinellas officials: more budget cuts could hurt basic services
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 theyâ€™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 weekâ€™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."
Bishopâ€™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 wonâ€™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. Whatâ€™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 itâ€™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 Administratorâ€™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 countyâ€™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 heâ€™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 thereâ€™s another concern, and thatâ€™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 countyâ€™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 itâ€™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."
Todayâ€™s rainy weather was a common theme throughout. County Commissioner Norm Roche said thereâ€™s only so much staff the county can cut before they canâ€™t cut anymore, especially in emergency services. He asked County Administrator Bob LaSala if the countyâ€™s reached that point yet.
"Is it fair to say that we're there? Or we're close?"
"I don't know. We're close, we're very close."
"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.
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.
Log onto Twitter. Use #pinellasbudget in the message.
Blog on www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall. THE BLOG OPENS 9 A.M. MONDAY, APRIL 4.
Call in during the event. Dial (888) 886-6603, then enter conference number 16403#.
View the event at www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall.
Watch the event live on PCC-TV (Bright House Channel 622, Knology Channel 18 or Verizon Channel 44).
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.comments powered by Disqus