Clearwater Budget Holds Few Surprises
By Anne McKay Garris
Last week, the much rumored and long dreaded proposed Clearwater City Budget for 2009/10 was presented to the Clearwater City Council. Most of the rumors turned out to be true, from the closing of the Harborview Center to raising of the tax mill. All of the proposals, however, are subject to the vote of the City Council which may, or may not, be influenced by citizen input. This is difficult, of course, in a diverse population of over 100,00 souls, some of whom believe public events, such as the Fun 'n Sun celebration are more important that a recreation center in the Morningside Neighborhood. Others are not concerned that the lifeguards on the beach will be on duty only seasonally, but not happy that the playground nearest to their home may be sold to get it back on to the tax role.
Clearwater's City Manager Bill Horne reported to the Council that the taxable value of Clearwater's real estate is down 13%, which equals to $1.3 billion dollars reduction in income, and the sales tax is down 9%.
The budget for next year is set at $374,190,210 and the millage rate will rise to 5.155 mills, a number which will bring in an additional $2.3 million. It will also raise real estate taxes to 9% more than last year.
The proposed budget reports planned cutbacks in personnel and activities throughout city government, including a cutback on the number of cell phones, computers and vehicles previously in use. There will be 17 less police officers in 2010 and the rescue units will be removed from Clearwater Beach and Countryside fire stations. These will be replaced by the much less expensive use of paramedics on fire engines at these locations.
A major shift in priority in the Parks and Recreation Department will be from emphasis on neighborhood facilities to more city-wide operations. This could include closing down any playgrounds, tennis courts, or basketball courts where more than one facility is within a one-mile radius of a neighborhood. The Recreation Department will continue to produce the Fun 'n Sun celebration, the Fourth of July and the Sea Blues Concert at Coachman Park. They will "support" the Iron Man, the Turkey Trot, and the Jazz Holiday but the report doesn't enumerate whether that will involve finances or not. This is supposed to save $200,000.
Closing the aging recreation center in the Morningside neighborhood will save the City $226,310 a year, but no additional recreation center closings are anticipated by this year's budget.
The East Branch Library seems to be safe for at least one more year, if the tax millage is increased, and the Library Department is working on ways to operate more efficiently with new automated systems and fewer employee hours. The North Greenwood Library, however, will be moved from its large and handsome building, that is only 6-years-old, to much smaller quarters at the North Greenwood Recreation Center, much as was done on Clearwater Beach last year. This is expected to save $350,000 a year in personnel and operation costs.
The Neighborhood Services Department which enforced city codes and worked with the neighborhoods to solve their problems, as well as to encourage them in their efforts to improve, has been disbanded. A code enforcement officer will be located in the newly organized Planning and Development Department. This change is supposed to save $650,000.
The relatively new Communications Department has been reduced slightly, but left in place. This department is responsible for video taping City Council, and other meetings and making them available on the Internet.
At the cost of $1,088,580, with 12 people, this department writes and distributes media releases, helps plan ceremonial events, develops community outreach programs such as breakfasts with the council members, the Citizens Academy, and town hall meetings. They publish a bi-monthly magazine about city activities and focus on "Downtown recruitment and marketing." Among other expenses for this department is $140,000 for postage.
In discussing how the proposed budget meets the goals of the City Council, the City Manager talked about encouraging the tourist industry, which adds considerably to our sales tax income. Even so, he recommends abandoning the popular tourist attraction, the Jolley Trolley, and closing the Harborview Center. By doing so, the city will save a $150,000 a year subsidy for the Jolley Trolley and a $300,000 a year subsidy for the Harborview Center. It will, however, spend $950,000 to tear down the Harborview Center and leave the city without either a city auditorium, or a public convention and trade show location. So far, no plans have been announced to replace the Harborview Center. But the Clearwater Renaissance Foundation is making strides towards the development of a Clearwater Cultural Center and children's activity center on the Harborview site, and the Regional Chamber of Commerce is seeking a location for a new Downtown Convention Center
And, speaking of big dreams, the proposed budget includes a renovation of Coachman Park which would encompass the west end of Cleveland Street, beyond Osceola, and the "former" Harborview Center parking lot. There is no date, nor amount set aside for this yet. What is set aside is $7,000,000 of Penny for Pinellas money to replace the current City Hall someday.
The good news is the enterprise funds that operate the Marina and the Clearwater Executive Air Park are self-supporting, as is the public/private partnership at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. The Downtown boat slips are a different matter. At the time of a referendum on the boat slips, the voters were promised that the downtown boats slips would be self-supporting, they would make a profit. Subsequent events have proved this to be unlikely. Various costs have gone up and the downturn in the economy has made the boat slips less commercially viable with fewer than twenty people now on the list to lease the 128 slips.
The budget also includes two funds that could conceivably be used to restore some of the cutbacks. The City's Parking Fund now stands at $13,750,957. This fund originally came mostly from public parking on the Beach, the majority of it from the extensive parking lot on the sand of the South Beach. It was used to pay for cleaning the beach, funding for the lifeguards and fully supporting the Jolley Trolley, which was originally free to riders. It was also used to help pay for the two parking garages in downtown Clearwater.
City Council expected to use the fund to build a parking garage somewhere on the South Beach. Just recently, the city began negotiating with a private company to build and pay for a public parking garage on South Gulfview, so it seems logical that the reserved parking fund could be once again used to support the Jolley Trolley and the Beach Guard program, although this has not been proposed.
There is also about $2 million in the Tax Increment Financing Fund which is real estate taxes from downtown Clearwater that, because of a city ordinance, can be spent only in downtown. This fund has been used for over 30 years to "redevelop downtown." Since downtown has consistently resisted being redeveloped in spite of the money spent there, it seems logical that the City Council, in these troubled times, could vote to put that money back in the City's General Fund. It could be used to rescue the North Greenwood Library, restore the Rescue Units to Clearwater Beach and Countryside and, perhaps, keep a Recreation Center of some sort in Morningside.
There will be a City Council Work Session on the budget on August 3, at 6 p.m. and on August 4, at 1 p.m. Held in the City Council Chambers, these meetings will be discussion by city council and staff with no citizen input.
Public hearings on the budget, where citizens may have input, will be held on September 3 and September 17, at the 6 p.m. regular meetings of the Council.
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