CLEARWATER - Having convened weekly since December 4th, 2006, a total of 15 meetings, Clearwater's Budget Task Force has nearly finished its job. They met on March 12th to finalize their recommendations on several issues, and plan to meet one more time on March 19th to approve their final report.
With 67 percent of the City's General Fund budget dedicated to employee salary and benefits, it is not surprising that the Task Force carefully focused on those costs. Their recommendations include limiting the cost of annual benefit increases to 3 percent, capping the city's contribution to employee health care insurance and evaluating a change from a defined benefit pension plan to a 401K-like defined contribution plan.
The Task Force recommended controlling the number of city employees by limiting the number of new facilities and parks. They also asked the Council to consider offering a buyout to retirement-eligible employees, potentially reducing headcount that is at the high end of the city's pay scale.
Clearwater Beach took the brunt of the Task Force's facility closure recommendations. Shuttering both the Beach Library and the Beach Recreation Center made their cost-cutting list.
The City's Parks and Recreation Department, whose 2008 budget has been projected to exceed that of Fire and Rescue, was targeted for a 5 percent cut. In addition to the closure of the Beach Rec center, the task force adopted several actions that had been identified by Parks and Rec Director Kevin Dunbar, including the elimination of six administrative jobs and a reduction in the frequency of landscape maintenance. The closure of the Morningside Rec Center was not recommended.
No service cuts were identified in public safety, although the Task Force did make recommendations involving the efficiencies of the city's Police and Fire organizations.
The body identified a potential savings of 25 percent in the Police Department's vehicle costs, and recommended a utilization study with a special emphasis on the department's take-home vehicle program.
The Task Force viewed Clearwater's Fire and Rescue Department as having "too many chiefs and not enough Indians." They felt that budget savings from reduced management headcount could be applied to hiring more firefighters, and recommended an examination of the ratio between Fire Fighters/Medics and Chiefs. They also recommended using volunteer firefighters to supplement the professional staff, and recommended the elimination of a Fire Plans Examiner position.
But despite all their cost-cutting suggestions, the Task Force recognized that there would be future pressures for additional city employees. Member Marty Altner said that he examined the details behind the city's Penny for Pinellas wish list for 2010-2020, and found a requirement for 18 to 20 additional headcount to support those projects. "What good are we doing? Whatever we do there's more coming," Altner observed.
The Budget Task Force will present their recommendations during the April 4th City Council meeting.