CLEARWATER - Last Thursday's meeting was the first opportunity for Clearwater's City Council to collectively provide direction on 2007/08 budget issues driven by the imminent tax-cutting actions of Florida's legislature; they weighed-in with a heavy axe.
A preliminary city budget is due to the Council by June 30th, but the uncertain action of the legislature, which failed to enact tax-cutting legislation during their regular session and has been called back to a special session June 12-22, has made it difficult to complete.
Mayor Frank Hibbard described the result of the city staff's preliminary budget effort in the face of legislative uncertainty: two columns of proposed cuts. The first column, named "Yellow", contained those recommended by City Manager Bill Horne totaling $4.3-million, a sum that would result in a rolled-back property tax rate for 2007/08. The second, named "Green", contained deeper cuts totaling an additional $4.2-million in savings if necessitated by the legislature's pending action.
The discussion began with an examination of the recommended cuts, Hibbard asking his colleagues to identify any items they would like to eliminate from the list. What followed took on the appearance of constructing a Chinese menu, moving dishes between the "Yellow" and "Green" columns to produce the most appetizing, or least distasteful, result.
Council member Carlen Petersen began what might have become a very laborious process by removing a $77-thousand reduction in the City's contribution to Ruth Eckerd Hall from the "Yellow" column of cuts. She suggested moving the elimination of a $42-thousand management intern from the "Green" to the "Yellow" column to partially make up for the loss.
Council member Paul Gibson interrupted the discussion; "I'm not sure we should be looking at these columns as separate; I think we should be looking at it as just one column," he said, "If we have to put money back later on, that's pretty easy to do. The hard part is taking it out." Gibson then asked Hibbard for his outlook on what the legislature might do.
Hibbard forecast a rollback to 2003/04 tax levels; "You are probably talking, at least, about the Yellow and Green column," he said, later adding that he expected state-imposed cuts in the $12-million to $14-million range, a number far` in excess of cuts included in the two city-produced columns under discussion.
Included in those two columns were reductions in library operating hours and staff, and the closure of facilities, including the beach library, beach recreation center and Morningside recreation center. Subsidies of popular non-profit organizations would also be eliminated or reduced, including Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Jolley Trolley, and the Farmers Market.
"I think you have to prepare the budget with both columns," Hibbard said. But the Council pulled two Public Safety services from the list, sparing the Fire Department's Squad 49 rescue team and the Police Department's School Resource Officer program at Clearwater and Countryside High Schools.
Clearwater's 2007/08 preliminary budget will be reduced by $7.5-million, but that will just be a starting point. The Council also directed Brumback to come up with another $4.5-million to cover additional cuts that may be imposed by the state legislature.