Residents Discuss Budget Challenges
By Patricia Bates Smith
CLEARWATER - The City of Clearwater held the first of two community workshops with residents on Monday evening at the Long Center to address fiscal challenges to the city's budget. The second workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, April 23, at the Clearwater Main Library from 6:00-8:30 p.m.
The Florida State Legislature began deliberations this week on a final plan to cut $5-billion from the state budget. These cutbacks, as well as the adoption of Amendment 1 and a slow economy, will greatly alter budget requirements for local governments.
The City Council directed the Public Communications Department to identify community priorities and to inform taxpayers about current and future budget challenges. Help was sought from Clearwater taxpayers to begin setting these priorities for the coming fiscal year, which begins October 1.
Doug Matthews, Public Communications Director, opened the meeting and introduced Mayor Frank Hibbard. About 70 citizens, City Councilmembers, Fire and Police personnel, numerous city staff members and city department heads attended. After a brief welcome, the Mayor presented an in depth power-point overview of the city's current and future budget projections.
Amendment 1 mandates a $2.8-million reduction. In addition, a total reduction of between $6-million to $10-million of the city's General Fund would be necessary. This fund of $123.2-million is derived from property taxes and supports Fire, Police, libraries, parks and recreation as well as personnel costs.
Declining property values, declining franchise and utility tax revenues and declining sales tax receipts demand that sacrifices be made for future fiscal stability. Reserve funds should not be drained to cover the projected revenue gap predicted for the next five years.
After the presentation, residents were asked to participate in an interactive session to set, what they considered to be, priorities based on the projected reductions. To encourage discussion, groups of 6-8 "players" were formed. Each group was given 48 poker chips representing city services that could be affected by budget cuts.
Each chip listed a service and a number pertaining to its cost and was to be placed into a "keep" pile or an "out" pile by the "players". The object was to reduce the $20,000 total budget "pot" by at least $2,000, which represented cuts to city services. And, the "games" began!
To assure that the session ran smoothly, facilitators had been trained by the city staff on procedure and the use of the chips. David Reed was stationed at our table to guide us. Nineteen items were listed for consideration and could remain, be reduced by half or be eliminated. After forty-five minutes of enthusiastic deliberating and compromising, time was called. An elected spokesperson stood and explained the decisions made at his or her table.
Lisa Chandler, owner of Pier 60 Concessions and Barefoot Beach House, spoke for our group. Mrs. Chandler added, "Over the years, I have attended many city meetings. This was by far one of the most creative concepts in which I have participated."
The "players" were of all ages and represented a variety of neighborhoods. Our table included residents from Countryside, Sunset Point, King's Highway and Old Clearwater Bay. This diversity of participants insured a wide range of reductions, but there was also a general consensus of opinion on several cutbacks.
The majority supported Police Department Services with the exception of the elimination of some police substations and the PD Admin Support, an administrative infrastructure formed by the department. Squad 49, which transports specialized equipment to emergency scenes for the Fire Department, was the only FD item reduced.
Landscape maintenance, Special Events, C-View TV, Neighborhood Services and Citizen Involvement Communications were recommended to be cut by half. The Harborview Center, Jolley Trolley, Beach Library and Office on Aging were recommended for elimination. Beach Lifeguards were also on the elimination list with the suggestion they be subsidized by beach parking fees.
Mayor Hibbard thanked those who attended for their support and suggestions. He assured they would be taken under serious consideration, but the final decision would be made by members of the City Council. The Council is aware that all departments must be examined for reductions, and the Mayor stressed that cutbacks will be made equitably throughout the city. He added that as elected officials, the Council is responsible for doing what will be most beneficial to the citizens of Clearwater.
Return to Current Edition