Council Divided 3-2 on Budget Approval
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - In years gone by, when Clearwater's annual budgets were presented at the first of two public hearings, all of the wrinkles had been ironed-out to the extent that the City Council, with rare exception, approved them unanimously.
That historic unity was shattered at last Thursday's first hearing of the city's 2009/10 budget, as Mayor Frank Hibbard and Vice Mayor Paul Gibson broke with their colleagues and sought approval of a budget that would lower the proposed city property tax rate.
Gibson cited a dire 5-year budget forecast provided by city staff as a reason to take action now. That report projected budget deficits of $4-million in 2010, $4.4-million in 2011 and $4.6-million on 2012.
A cumulative $13-million in budget cuts would be required in those years if the assumptions of flat property tax revenues, pension contributions approaching 30-percent of pay, 3-percent annual increases in employee medical benefits and annual wage increases of two to three percent prove accurate.
Recognizing the difficulty in making those future cuts Gibson observed, "To kind of put things in perspective, our entire library system is $5.6-million. These are massive numbers, huge numbers that are hard for me to fathom."
But as bad as those numbers might seem, Gibson considers them as best-case because of what he sees as the looming decline in the value of the city's commercial property tax base and the potential to further erode city tax revenues.
"These are numbers that cause us to need to, I believe, completely rethink the way we do business as a city," Gibson said. He called for expanding to other city departments the Police Department efficiency study conducted earlier this year. That independent study led to a $1.3-million reduction in the city's 2009/10 Police budget.
Gibson proposed reducing next year's budget a further $2.5-million by closing the East Library branch, permanently reducing the road millage by $500-thousand, eliminating C-VIEW programming and transferring $1,334,800 of road millage balance. The resulting millage rate of 4.8672 would represent a 3-percent increase over this year's rate.
Gibson received support only from Mayor Frank Hibbard, with Councilmembers Carlen Petersen, John Doran and George Cretekos prevailing in a 3-2 vote to tax Clearwater's property owners at a rate of 5.115 mills next year, a 9-percent increase from this year's tax rate.
The second and final hearing on the city's 2009/10 budget and tax rate will be held on Thursday September 17th at 6PM at City Hall in Council Chambers.
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