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County Commission tackles budget issues
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Pinellas County Commissioners, from left, front row, Vice Chair Karen Seel, Chair Ken Welch, John Morroni, back row, Charlie Justice, Susan Latvala, Janet Long and Norm Roche.
LARGO – Pinellas County Commissioners discussed a variety of subjects during a lengthy work session April 18 at St. Petersburg College’s Collaborative Labs in Largo.

According to a “real-time record” of proceedings, the commission and staff spent much of the time talking about the continuing challenge of balancing the budget during a time when revenues are less than required.

County Administrator Bob LaSala likened the commission’s work to “right-size” county government by balancing revenues and expenditures to days of the Renaissance.

“We’re in a studio where Michelangelo is looking at a big block of marble and envisions a statue of David,” LaSala said. “Having a strategic vision, he sees David inside that block of marble. His goal is to free that statue. He starts by knocking big chunks off the block of marble to get to his vision. That’s what we’ve been doing. We took bold, dramatic steps to balance the budget and to begin to understand the fiscal realities beyond one budget. Hewing out a strategic direction. As we do these big things, we begin the make the cuts a little finer.”

LaSala told commissioners that problem solving would not be part of the day’s work; instead, a to-do list would be created to provide guidance to staff as work continues to prepare next year’s budget.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Woodard then talked about the “Age of Enlightenment” during the late 1980s through about 2006, followed by the “Dark ages,” during which time about 1,700 county positions were eliminated.

“We are down to staffing levels of 28 years ago. General fund budgets have been reduced by 35 percent. All of the things that happened in the Age of Enlightenment came out of the budgets. We’ve had to cut even more. Parks took a 50 percent cut,” he said.

Woodard talked about the service level stabilization fund that the commission created by making deeper cuts in past years to “create a bucket of money that we could apply as things improved” and prevent the need to eliminate more positions or services.

The past few years, staff has been implementing cost-savings measures through consolidations, sales of surplus properties, initiating energy and conservation measures and technology improvements.

LaSala said he would be recommending additional consolidations and optimization of the use of personnel and other measures for the coming budget year.

“We’re not going to get big savings by simply swinging that hammer on that block of marble,” he said. “It will take careful analysis and carving and that will be an ongoing process.”

He then talked about a number of challenges, including having an aging workforce, the high cost of public safety and funds, including transportation and emergency medical services, that don’t receive enough revenue to pay for themselves.

“We need to be sensitive to the stakeholders’ capacity to absorb tax increases,” he said. “We need to align options with services. If you can show more directly the outcome with the tax, you are likely to get support. Penny for Pinellas is a good example of that.”

Reserves for the transportation and EMS trust funds are forecast to be gone by 2017. The estimated 2 to 4 percent increase in ad valorem revenue coming in will most likely be depleted by rising personnel costs – benefits and retirement. In addition, employees have not received a pay raise in five years.

LaSala said he would be recommending a millage increase for the general fund and EMS for the next budget year. Commissioners also discussed increasing the gas tax, a new stormwater tax for residents in unincorporated areas and others, including the upcoming referendum to change the way Pinellas pays for its transit services.

Another topic was East Lake Library and the continuing complaint that the money the library receives is not a fair share compared to the amount paid into the Pinellas County Library Cooperative. East Lake wants to create a dependent taxing district, a concept opposed by at least one commissioner. The consensus was to ask staff to prepare an ordinance for a future agenda that would create a separate MSTU (unincorporated area municipal services taxing unit) for East Lake in lieu of a referendum.

Commissioners also talked about the future of the tourist development fund. After fiscal year 2015, the fund will no longer be paying the debt service for Tropicana Field or the Dunedin baseball training facility. By 2016, estimates show a surplus in revenue of $10.6 million. Several organizations have already requested a share and the future of the Tampa Bay Rays’ request for a new stadium is up in the air. Also, with the uncertainty of continued funding from federal and state sources for nourishment of local beaches, the use of the surplus will need careful consideration.

“Between us and TDC (Tourist Development Council), we’ll have to prioritize these things,” Commission Chair Ken Welch said. “Everything with the feds is up in the air.”

The commission is still waiting for a consultant’s report on EMS, specifically the most cost-effective and quality method of providing ambulance services. The draft report expected in April is not coming until June, which brings into question the implementation of phase 3 priority dispatch scheduled to begin June 1. The final report from the consultant is not expected until July 1.

The commission has a lot riding on the report, in terms of finding a way to put a stop to a never-ending rise in cost to provide EMS services. Commissioner Janet Long pointed out that EMS millage increases over the past three years has totaled nearly 58 percent.

“We have been working on this,” Welch said. “EMS is just as complicated. We are working with 19 fire districts and we have limited authority. The legislature has stepped in with its own authority.

A new topic was a discussion on creating a service level continuation account, which LaSala said could be funded with a “slight increase in millage … probably around 0.3 of a mill.”

The consensus was to wait until all the budget requests were in before talking about additional millage increases.

“I think we should move forward to see what the numbers are. We have recovery to do first, and then to have a savings account is another thing. I think we need to see the numbers,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice.
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