Budget shows virus slows but doesn’t stop Largo from forging ahead

The unveiling of a new heart-shaped sculpture was supposed to part of a daylong celebration for the 25th anniversary of Largo Central Park this year. The party didn't happen, but RPA director Joan Byrne said the city has set aside $50,000 and will try again next year, combining it with the 25th anniversary of Central Park Performing Arts Center.

LARGO — For several years, Largo leaders have made it a priority to boost the city’s coffers so it could better weather any financial storms on the horizon. They are grateful they did because that storm has arrived and it wasn’t the hurricane they might have been planning for.

Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an era of fiscal uncertainty for both short- and long-term planning that has and will continue to affect the decisions this year and beyond.

According to Meridy Semones, director of the Office and Performance Budget, the pandemic has delivered a roughly $3.5 million hit to the city’s major funds this past fiscal year. The general fund alone has lost about $2.5 million, or 3%, mainly as a result of closing the recreation centers and associated user fees.

City Manager Henry Schubert and department directors discussed that financial outlook July 10 during a City Commission work session about the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts Oct. 1.

Highlights of that discussion include a recommendation to leave the property tax rate unchanged, an increase in spending in the police department budget, rescheduling the Central Park 25th anniversary celebration, 4% salary increases for employees, and more.

Here’s a breakdown of the $174.7 million budget, which is a 2.15% increase from last year’s budget and includes $91.8 million in the general fund.

Property tax rate

The good news is that Largo’s property values continued to rise last year, resulting in an 8.37% increase.

That led Schubert to propose a reduction of the property tax rate from 5.62 to 5.5 mills. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Thanks to the increase in property values, the reduced rate would still generate an additional $1.6 million for the general fund.

However, after hearing that county officials are growing concerned about the property values for 2022, Schubert has changed course.

“In the proposed budget, we assumed a slight reduction in the property tax rate, which I thought made a lot of sense considering the significant growth in property values this year. I guess I’m a little less optimistic now than I was when I first formulated that recommendation,” he said, also citing declines in revenue from sales tax, gas tax and user fees.

Therefore, Schubert recommended commissioners maintain the tax rate of 5.62 mills.

“I think the big question mark is the commercial sector,” he said. “What we don’t know is what, for lack of a better way of putting it, the casualty rate is going to be amongst retail. How many of those stores are going to go out of business and never come back? How many of those restaurants are going to close?”

On July 21, commissioners will decide on the maximum millage rate for notices that will be mailed to residents. The final decision will be made at two public hearings in September.

Public safety

Largo is increasing its police department’s budget by roughly 14% up to more than $29.1 million, which includes $441,900 to add three new officers. The three new officers, which are the result of a public safety staffing plan that was initiated four years ago, are the only three new employees in the entire budget.

Chief Jeff Undestad said the department also will continue its mental health and homeless outreach programs.

The fire department’s budget is also increasing by roughly $6.22 million, which is mostly due to a $3.5 million project to reconstruct three of the city’s six stations over the next 10 years.

Fire Chief Chad Pittman said three EMT positions also will be converted to paramedics at a cost of $40,000 to alleviate paramedic shortages and decrease overtime.

Pittman said cancer prevention efforts will also be taken in the form of additional bunker gear and new protocols to provide healthier environments.

Rate increases

Several utility rate increases had been planned for FY 2021 in order to fund capital improvements. However, fearing the community may not be able to bear increased fees, officials decided to alter and push some back.

A 25% wastewater rate increase was planned for FY 2020, but it has now been pushed back to FY 2021 and restructured to a three-year program of 10% per year. They would be the first wastewater fee hikes since 2007.

A stormwater fee increase of 25% initially planned for 2021 has also been moved to 2022. A 20% increase is also planned for 2023.

Recreation, Parks and Arts

One of the biggest disappointments in the city this year was the cancellation of the celebration for the 25th anniversary of Central Park. But, RPA director Joan Byrne said it has set aside $50,000 and will try again next year, combining it with the 25th anniversary of Central Park Performing Arts Center.

Other budget highlights in the departments include upgrades to the Performing Arts Center Facility ($240,000), city facility signage improvements ($25,000), and construction of a new storage for the Largo Central Railroad ($400,000).

Byrne added that the city aims to add a new mobile recreation services program that will cater to underserved parts of the community.

Community Development

Community Development Director Carol Stricklin said $31,500 has been budgeted to establish an Angel Fund pilot program.

The goal is to help low-income residents who are having problems maintaining their properties and bring them into compliance.

“The idea is we would be using those funds as a grant to abate minor nuisances in circumstances where homeowners do not have the means or the ability to correct these minor violations,” she said.

For those who share any ideas about the budget, the city’s Office of Performance and Budget is hosting five virtual community budget planning and engagement sessions during the month of July. Sign up to participate by visiting Largo.com/BudgetInput. For more information, email connect@largo.com or call 727-587-6740, ext. 7630.