CLEARWATER - Having participated in ten weekly meetings and heard presentations from every city department director, the members of Clearwater's Budget Task Force held a joint meeting with the City Council on February 12th. "We thought it would be good to have a dialog before we issue the final report," said board chairman Nathan Hightower.
Members in turn shared their thoughts with the Council. Personnel cost, representing the bulk of the city's budget, received the most attention.
Board member Herb McLachlan focused on the city's nearly fully funded pension plan, wondering if it couldn't be tapped to encourage early retirement of selected employees. He also suggested changing the city's pension from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, a cost-saving measure that has grown popular in private industry.
McLachlan continued to explore benefits; "All of our employee benefit costs are very heavy within the city," he said, pointing out that the combination of 13 paid holidays and 10 paid sick days amounts to more than one working month.
Board member Charles Rutz suggested limiting the annual growth of the city's budget to three percent, a rate equal to the limit of increase in assessed value of homesteaded property.
Councilmember John Doran asked the board, "If you're going to increase police and fire turnover by 20 per-cent per year in order to get to a three per-cent cap on their salaries, is that something that you're comfortable with? Are you comfortable with high turnover? Are you comfortable with people who are willing to work for substantially less than the people who work in Sheriff's Department or the people who work in the Tampa Police Department or the St. Petersburg Police Department?"
Board member Joseph Evech responded that if Clearwater limited its employee salary and benefit growth, other cities would follow suit. "Do you really believe that," Doran asked. "I think ultimately that's got to happen," responded Evech.
"We're very concerned about losing the quality of employees that we have in Clearwater," said Board member Marty Altner, "but when you're in a crisis, you look at everything."
Altner was also concerned that the construction of new facilities has fuelled a growth in the number of city employees. Using the new library as an example of a facility whose construction was funded by Penny for Pinellas, he said, "It's all great, but at the same point we woke up to a whole new situation in relation to the reality of the tax burden." Altner suggested "thinking long and hard about the costs that go beyond building" even if the city is given the money to construct new facilities.
Board member Doug Williams offered a counterpoint to those suggesting budget cuts affecting employees. He called Clearwater "a very well-managed city," and said, "Seventy per-cent is people. Do we want to get rid of them? I don't think so."
After the meeting, Mayor Frank Hibbard said, "If we want to make cuts, we have to look at services." That look will come at next week's meeting, when department directors will estimate the impact that a five per-cent budget reduction would have on the services they provide.
Board chairman Nathan Hightower said that the task force would be finalizing their report by the end of February, and plan to present it to the City Council at their March 1st meeting.
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