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Largo plans improvement projects
Largo commissioners begin budget process with review of capital projects
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LARGO – After reviewing a favorable audit of the previous year’s finances April 8, Largo commissioners discussed the city’s major projects proposed for the next five years, projected to cost almost $130 million.

The projects include things like an upgrade to the city website but also delineates plans for the city to replace and maintain its infrastructure. Assistant City Manager Mike Staffopoulos explained that the city had begun to take a “holistic approach” to replacing and renovating its buildings, roads and utility structures.

“In the past, most of the time, we’ve done this on a reactive-type basis; we’ve waited until we see a problem emerge and we go out and we fix that problem,” he said.

Instead, the city wants to assess everything it maintains. Using the Trotter Road project as an example, Staffopoulos said that while the city could just reconstruct the road itself, it made sense to consider the sanitary sewer lines that run underneath it, any wet weather systems and drainage associated with it and the condition of the adjacent sidewalks.

“We realized that there was a lot of overlap with regards to our asset management that we need to look at (from) a 50,000-foot elevation to make sure that we’re putting them all in the right prioritization,” he explained.

A proactive approach calls for the city to conduct studies to determine what needs to be upgraded and then prioritize plans for replacing or renovating city assets.

“We’ve started on the smaller things like computer servers and vehicles, where we’ve been able to place them into replacement cycles before they actually fall apart or cost too much to maintain," Staffopoulos said.

But moving forward, city staff would be considering larger projects: assessing the condition of Largo’s roads, considering the expansion of the sidewalk system and, as was discussed in the commissioners’ work session last month, developing a master plan for the reclaimed water system. The city’s “forgotten utility” has been in the ground for almost 30 years and is potentially due for some major work, Staffopoulos said. The city was working on an investigation of the system.

“There may be some policy decisions as to whether we expand or retract reclaimed (water) based on the information we find out,” Staffopoulos said.

To offset future costs, the city has proposed a 15 percent increase to the wastewater fee next year and in the fiscal year 2019.

An analysis of the stormwater system is a more pressing issue, Staffopoulos said. The city is proposing a $500,000 study of its canals, ditches, roadside swales, culverts, drainage structures, ponds and treatment units in next year’s budget.

To help fund the study and the infrastructure upgrades, staff is proposing a 25 percent stormwater fee increase for four years starting in fiscal year 2016, meaning that by fiscal year 2019, the fee will have doubled.

“The stormwater fund is not self-supporting for all stormwater needs,” said budget manager Amy Davis.

Many of the infrastructure upgrades to date have been paid for with Penny for Pinellas funds. Davis said that lots of other communities had stormwater fees “that are twice our rate.”

City staff also is considering how often it should replace or upgrade its buildings using new asset management software.

Aside from the fee-based funds, the city is projecting a 5 percent increase in property tax revenue, achieved at least in part by an increase in the property tax rate. Staff estimated between 1 and 4 percent increase in the city’s property values, but the projections are only preliminary.

The only service-level increase within the general fund is the new city website and a dedicated staff person to manage it. The current site is about seven years old and long overdue for an upgrade. The city is still in the preliminary stages of discussing “what functionality would serve our residents” as well as how the city would allocate a staff person to maintain it, Davis explained.

IT Director Harold Schomaker said his department had every intention to bring the site up to current standards, including using HTML5 formats.

“We will be changing all of the look and feel to more modern techniques,” he said. “We will try to keep it as dynamic as possible … so in five to seven years, it’s still mainstream.”

According to the current five-year projections, the general fund balance dips below the minimum 10 percent reserves goal for a few years as expenditures grow and revenues don’t keep up.

“City administration will be working hard to present a proposed budget that includes both employee pay raises and acceptable fund balance levels,” City Manager Mac Craig wrote in his introductory letter for the capital improvements program.

The city’s projection of the general fund includes the disputed reduction in EMS funds from the county.

The April 8 workshop allowed commissioners to review the capital improvements program in detail. They will vote on approval of the proposed projects in an upcoming public hearing.
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