CLEARWATER – Sept. 3 was a double-header for the City Council members. They had their usual work session at 3 p.m., followed by a special budget meeting at 6 p.m. But anybody who had visited the city’s website knew that surprises at the budget meeting were unlikely, and the budget for the next fiscal year would be almost a carbon copy of the current budget.
“For the most part, the proposed operating budget is very similar to the current 2012/13 operating budget, providing sustained current operation and service levels,” City Manager Bill Horne wrote in a June 12 letter to the council that is posted on the site. “The only new initiative in this budget of any significance is the proposed addition of the new police officer positions to provide needed support at Clearwater Beach, where there is enhanced tourism and beach activity.”
The city’s budget director, Tina Wilson, told the council members and audience that she has proposed keeping the real estate millage rate at about 5.16 mills, where it has been since Fiscal Year 2009/10. A mill equals one dollar of tax for every $1,000 of taxable value. Clearwater’s share is only approximately 24 percent of the 21.4949 mills that Clearwater taxpayers will pay to the county, however.
But the 5.16 rate will bring in slightly more income next year than the current year because the total taxable value of all Clearwater real estate has risen slightly, from $7.6 billion a year ago to $7.7 billion now. That is the first increase since the total value started its downward slide from $11.2 billion in Fiscal Year 2007/08, at the beginning of the Great Recession.
The overall budget will decrease from $386 million this year to $375 million next year.
The general fund budget, which is comprised 53 percent of public safety items such as the police and fire departments, 24 percent of quality of life amenities such as parks and recreation, 7 percent of engineering, 4 percent of planning and development, and 12 percent administration, will increase from $113 million to $115 million.
The police budget will jump from $35.7 million to $36.3 million, but the fire department budget will decrease from $24.4 million to $23.9 million. The parks and recreation budget will go from $21 million to $21.1 million, and the library budget will increase from $5.8 million to $5.9 million. The planning and development budget will remain at $4.8 million, but the engineering budget will drop from $7.9 million to $7.6 million. The catch-all “other” budget will rise from $13.8 million to $15.3 million, and $1.4 million from the general fund “other” expenditures will be used to balance the budget.
The largest fund in the operating budget, “utility”, will go up from $139 million to $142 million.
The capital improvement fund budget will drop from its current $44,425,910 to $43,987,190 next year. Some of its bigger projects are $8,017,120 for a sewer system, $5,193,050 for fire department use, and $3,102,170 for a garage.
In addition to approving the millage rate, the operating budget and the capital improvement budget, the councilmembers also approved a list of Penny for Pinellas sales tax-funded projects they would like to see built between Fiscal Years 2013 and 2020. It includes $2,425,000 for a “Downtown Intermodal Facility,” $1,985,000 for seawall replacement, $1,440,000 for a traffic calming project, $6,250,000 for the consolidated Eastlake/St. Petersburg College library, and $4.5 million for park improvements.
The meeting took just 39 minutes, and nobody from the audience accepted Mayor George Cretekos’ invitation to speak at the podium.
Another special meeting will be held in City Hall at 6 p.m. on Sept. 19 for the second and final reading of the budget, which the council amended to add an additional $6.75 million to the 2015/16 budget if the voters on Nov. 5 turn down the referendum that will allow the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build its new facility on the current City Hall site, and the city does not get the $7.5 million CMA would have paid for a new City Hall if the deal had gone through.