Welcome to Beach Walk; Swim at Your Own Risk
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Somehow, the City of Clearwater found $30-million to construct the Beach Walk project at the edge of the white sands of south Clearwater Beach, but might be unable to afford the $700-thousand annual expense of the beach lifeguards who protect the public whom Beach Walk was intended to attract.
Such is the painful message that came out of Monday's City Council budget discussion, the first to deal with specific budget reductions recommended by City Manager Bill Horne in response to the passage of Amendment 1 and the city's declining property values and tax revenues.
During Monday's worksession, Budget Director Tina Wilson explained to the Council that a preliminary estimate of the city's taxable property forecasts a decline of $700-million in value.
That 6.5-percent decrease would mean a reduction of more than $3-million in general fund tax revenues. But with contractually required future wage increases and growing fuel and power costs, Wilson estimated that about $5.5-million would have to be cut from the city's 2008/09 general fund operations to achieve a balanced budget.
Wilson's budget balancing effort produced a three-tiered cost-cutting approach. Tier 1, described as "Belt Tightening", would save just over $3-million annually, preserving all but four city jobs and having minimal impact on city services.
Tier 1 reductions would tap financial reserves to fund 50-percent of Beach Walk construction, saving $315-thousand of annual debt repayment. Tier 1 would also limit annual wage increases for professional employees to 2.5-percent, reduce police and fire overtime and reduce the rate of wage increases for fire/rescue employees. All told, Tier 1 reductions in employee compensation would amount to $1.93-million.
Wilson described the Tier 2 reductions, amounting to just over $2.5-million, as "Service Level Reductions Due to Slowing Economy." City headcount would be cut back by 48.1 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) employees, and city services would be noticeably reduced.
Library hours would be hard hit in Tier 2, operating for only one shift instead of the current two. The main library would be open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the Countryside and East branches Tuesday through Saturday. Library staff would be reduced by nineteen FTE.
Tier 2 would impact Parks and Recreation as well, with a staff reduction of nineteen FTE and the public suffering reduced operating hours of recreation centers and swimming pools. City funding of the Jolley Trolley operation on the beach would be eliminated.
The Clearwater Police Department would lose five FTE in Tier 2, although those positions would not be sworn officers. Public Communications would lose two FTE assigned to CVIEW, reducing staff by 50-percent and limiting programming to only public meetings.
Wilson explained that the combined effect of implementing everything in Tiers 1 and 2 would realize a savings of $5.8-million. "We're probably going to be somewhere between the middle of Tier 2 down into possibly entering some of the Tier 3 reductions, depending on where we're at when we know some better numbers," Wilson said.
The implementation of Tier 3 reductions would shed another 37.9 FTE from the city's payroll, and save nearly $4-million annually. The Library system would lose 18.5 FTE, and the North Greenwood, Beach and East branches would close.
Police would eliminate ten non-sworn positions plus six sworn officers involved in the Community Policing program. The workload of the non-sworn positions would be transferred to sworn officers, impacting their responsiveness to high-priority crimes.
The city's Harborview subsidy would be eliminated, saving $342-thousand, as would cash support of several other organizations totaling about $300-thousand.
Future visitors to Clearwater Beach might be well advised to limit their excursions to Beach Walk. The possible Tier 3 elimination of Clearwater's 14.5 FTE beach guards would leave no one to prevent jumping from Pier 60 (785 incidents in 2007), no one to keep bathers in the swim zones (4,668 incidents in 2007), no one to keep boaters out of the swim zones or off the Clearwater Pass jetty (1424 incidents in 2007), no one to respond to missing person reports, mostly children, on the beach (82 incidents in 2007) and no one to rescue bathers at risk of drowning (32 incidents in 2007).
The beach guards were formerly funded by beachgoers themselves via the fees they paid to park in the city's beach parking lots. Ironically, the construction of Beach Walk has reduced that revenue stream to the extent that the City Council must now decide whether to eliminate the beach guard program or continue taxing the city's property owners to preserve it.
Public workshops will be held this summer after the City Manager presents his preliminary budget to must the Council.
Those workshops often attract nonprofit organizations seeking city subsidies, but despite the likely passage of an anti-panhandling ordinance tonight, the City Council will not be spared such begging this year.
The anti-panhandling ordinance would prohibit soliciting, begging, and panhandling in the Clearwater downtown core redevelopment zone where City Hall is located. But in response to a question from the Gazette, Assistant City Attorney Rob Surette opined, "Professional organizations coming to the Council about funding for a program is not covered in the definitions of 'begging for money' in the ordinance."
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