Tough Choices - Trimming the City Budget
By Nick Fritsch
It was standing room only in the conference room at the Main Library last Wednesday, when the City Council hosted the second of two sessions on the 2009 budget. Vice-Mayor George Cretekos began by candidly presenting an overview of the budget and the reality of the issues. One of the least recognized facts as he stated is Clearwater only receives 23.5% of our total property tax bill. Most of it goes to the school board and the county.
Then, about 10 citizens at a dozen tables were given a list of possible items to consider for cuts in a mock city budget. A goal of a 10% was set for citizens to identify items from the list to be trimmed or chopped. They were asked to "sit in the role as a council member" and advised to be serious about the task. Citizens responded in a like spirit, rolled up their sleeves and dug into the list. The exercise was well designed. It engaged the participants to debate, evaluate and shave the least essential city services. Discussions at the tables were respectful, but many felt strongly about their top votes to keep or discard.
At the end of each table's deliberation, the table's "mayor for a moment" shared the specifics of the group's list of services to reduce or fully eliminate. Some of the topics were surprising and others were the usual and vulnerable suspects.
Here is an approximate recap of the recommendations. Beginning with the usual suspects, the Harborview Center headed the list with the most votes to be eliminated with 10 votes out of a possible 12 to fully remove the city subsidy. Next, C-VIEW TV was hit with 3 to eliminate it and six to chop it in half. Landscape maintenance grabbed third place with 8 to reduce by half and one to eliminate. The Jolley Trolley received 7 votes to join them on the unfunded service heap. At some tables, it was noted the PSTA trolleys already run much of the route. Cultural Affairs, citizen communications and Neighborhood Services all had 7 votes to trim by 50%.
Despite distributing flyers at the library entrance and what some might call an intimidating presence in the room, the firefighters found Squad 49 with several votes to redistribute its assets. Two police services were targeted. One was an easy pick, their internal administration a duplication of effort of other city staff. But surprisingly, Community Policing was identified with five votes for a 50% reduction and two votes to eliminate it entirely.
Every table exceeded the objective. A couple of groups doubled it with a total of nearly 20% in reductions. Citizens appeared to enjoy the task and the opportunity to be input into the budget process. Cretekos' summary of the evening was "The citizens were a nice cross section of neighborhoods and some people who might not come to council meetings."
It was a smart move by the council and staff. Tough choices face the city administration and ultimately the council. The budget will be very close to final form in August. Stay engaged in the weeks to come.
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