CLEARWATER - On April 27th, city staff presented to the Council their recommendations for budget cuts necessary to achieve a "rolled-back" property tax rate for 2007/08, and their opinion of the recommendations on the recently completed budget task force, accepting 14 items, but rejecting 7 of the most controversial.
City Manager Bill Horne introduced the session, saying, "There's nothing political about these recommendations from the City Manager's perspective… Quite frankly, we don't want to do any of the reductions because we don't believe that we have any fat in our budgets."
City staff accepted 14 of the Budget Task Force recommendations, but rejected 7, including:
- Imposing a CPI plus 1-percent cap on the annual growth of the General Fund Budget
- Limiting employee salary increases to 3-percent annually
- Freezing the city's contribution to employee health care benefits
- Providing an incentive for retirement eligible employees to retire now
- Using $6-million surplus in the city's pension plan to fund the 2007/08 pension plan contribution
- Examining what was perceived as a top-heavy management-to-staff ratio in the Fire Department
- Introducing volunteer firefighters to supplement the city's professional staff
Budget Director Tina Wilson presented the staff-recommended budget cuts that would permit a rolled-back tax rate for 2007/08, and listed other potential savings options if State-imposed limits require further belt tightening.
The recommended savings total $4,371,820, with a reduction in city staff of 48.7 full time equivalent employees. Many of the recommended savings have already been taken via not filling open staff positions and management of debt and insurance costs.
But some of the recommended cuts would impact the services Clearwater's citizens have been receiving from the Library System and the Parks and Recreation Department.
The Beach Branch Library would be moved to the nearby Recreation Center saving $100,000 per year, but the book count and service level would be reduced. The Library Department would also reduce headcount by five, and close both the Countryside and East branches two nights per week. The recommended Library savings total $204,700.
The proposed cuts from Parks and Recreation total $1,158,670. The two major impacts to Parks would be the closure of the Morningside Recreation Center and turning the North Greenwood Recreation Center operation over to the Boys & Girls Club. The Parks Department headcount reduction would total 28.2 full time equivalent employees.
If the State Legislature imposes budget or tax limitations more austere than could be accommodated by limiting city tax revenues to current levels, the city budget cuts would become more draconian. An additional $4,171,120 could be saved, including a further headcount reduction of 50.9 full time equivalent employees, but services would be further impacted, including both Police and Fire.
The Fire department would eliminate Squad 49, a unit that responds to critical accidents and has specialized equipment including "jaws of life" and air bottle refilling; its equipment would be distributed among other fire vehicles, but response times would likely grow. The savings from shuttering Squad 49 total $695,440 annually, and involve a reduction of 7 fire employees.
Clearwater's Police department would eliminate its School Resource Officer program at Clearwater and Countryside High Schools, saving 4 headcount and $251,440 annually. The Officer Friendly program would also end, saving 2 headcount and $125,720 annually.
Further reductions would be made in Parks, closing the Beach Recreation Center and, as a result, the Beach Library. The combined savings would total $175,360, with a loss of 4.4 headcount across the two departments.
All told, the recommended and additional savings total $8,452,940 and involve the elimination of 99.6 full time equivalent positions. But even that might not be enough. Budget Director Tina Wilson said during Monday's Council Work Session, "If the state goes forth and they do the 2003 level, we're going to be doing a whole lot more than what's on these two lists. We'll have to take a whole new look at our operations."
The Council will give guidance to staff on their budget cut recommendations during tonight's public meeting. Mayor Frank Hibbard encouraged public involvement; "We invite all of you citizens to also come out and discuss that, because we truly want to hear what your priorities are," he said.