Council Shifts Priorities for Penny III Budget
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - The Clearwater City Council meet in a special worksession last Thursday to discuss staff-recommended changes to the list of projects that would be funded by Penny for Pinellas III, the countywide 1-percent infrastructure sales tax that was extended for third decade by voters in 2007.
Earlier this year, Budget Director Tina Wilson said that $20-million must be eliminated from the Council's Penny III budget because of projected revenue shortfalls.
While there were few surprises, the Council's priorities shifted away from projects that would require additional staffing and towards financial transactions that would serve to reduce future General Fund expenses.
One decision that did not surprise was the use of Penny for Pinellas to replace insurance reserves that the Council recently used to eliminate debt on the downtown boat slips project. "I guess there's been some Council discussion about possibly funding the downtown boat slips through the Penny fund," said Tina Wilson.
Wilson's speech seemed unaffected by the tongue that was surely planted in her own cheek; City Manager Bill Horne, at the February 17th Council worksession, had promoted the downtown boat slips as "being your highest Penny priority." And while it remained high on their list, on this day the Council agreed to fund only half from Penny, saving $4.125-million for other projects.
One of those projects was not the Countryside Family Aquatics Center, but the Council left its $2.5-million as a placeholder for other unspecified investments in the Countryside area.
The Morningside neighborhood, whose long-promised new recreation center was facing the axe, got a temporary reprieve courtesy of the Council's decision to fund only half of the boat slip project. Vice Mayor George Cretekos had objected to Morningside's potential demise. "It troubles me that, for all these years, we've been talking about the Morningside project and then, today, that we're just going to eliminate it," he said.
City Manager Bill Horne had defended that recommendation, saying that the new recreation center would require additional employees and operational cost. "I think it's important for the community to understand how dire things are," he said.
In an effort to "provide relief to the General Fund", Wilson proposed using Penny III to fund $1.8-million of the city's Police cruiser purchases for the next several years. $1.97-million was also broken out of the Countryside, Lakeview and Clearwater Fire Station renovation budgets for the purchase of new Fire engines. "This is one of those where I don't like it, but I'll probably have to agree to it," said Councilmember Paul Gibson of Penny III funding of the Police cruisers.
Our readers' top selection for Penny III project elimination was the new City Hall project, then valued at $25-million. During Thursday's meeting, Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin explained that the proposed project had been split into two, a new City Hall at $7-million and an intermodal parking garage/bus station at $8-million. The remaining $10-million was eliminated.
While no location has been decided, there was discussion of moving City Hall to the top level of the downtown library. "I honestly don't believe there's a great constituency for a new city hall, and yet the reality is we're going to have to have a follow-on to this structure at some level. We end up being the advocates for our own future," Horne said of the effort to find an alternative to the current building.
The renovation the Countryside and East branches of the Clearwater Library System, budgeted at $5-million each, may give way to the construction of a new 45,000 square foot consolidated library at the site of what is now Woodgate Park, at Countryside Blvd. and Enterprise Rd. The combined facility would be more efficient to operate, allowing longer operating hours than the 2 existing facilities.
The Council was split on the purchase of the downtown St Petersburg Times property for the construction of a new fire station. Mayor Frank Hibbard thought that the prime commercial property should remain on the tax rolls, while Councilmember Paul Gibson said that the city's year-old appraisal valued the parcel too highly. Councilmembers Doran, Petersen and Vice Mayor Cretekos formed a majority that wanted to at least have discussions with the Times.
The City Council seemed to be listening to the advice provided by participants in the Gazette's online Penny III opinion poll that ended on March 5. Of the top four vote getters, only the Downtown Streetscaping project survived Council scrutiny without cuts, although it had previously been reduced from $25-million to the current $8-million. The Council reduced Penny funding of the Downtown boat slips by $4.125-million, the new City Hall by $10-million, and eliminated the $6.25-million Downtown Garage.
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