Pinellas commissioners tasked with critical budget decisions

Office of Management and Budget Director Bill Berger reviews recommendations for decision packages during the May 6 budget information session.

CLEARWATER — As usual, budget needs far exceed expected revenue. Despite a rebound in taxable values, Pinellas County Commissioners have some difficult decisions ahead.

Commissioners got a look at all the decision packages on the table June 6 along with recommendations from the Office of Management and Budget. Requests total nearly $40.8 million, but there’s only $8.2 million extra to spend in fiscal year 2019-2020.

Departments and agencies that receive funding from the county, including constitutional officers, independents and special districts have presented their budget requests. OM&B took those requests along with asks from county commissioners to come up with a preliminary budget.

OM&B Director Bill Berger said the preliminary budget assumes no changes in millage rates. It retains 15% in reserves, which is policy, and maintains a recurring investment in public safety and human services programs.

County Administrator Barry Burton is scheduled to present the proposed budget on July 23.

Meanwhile, OM&B will continue to use feedback to prepare a balanced budget and meet as many needs as possible. Two areas represent the bulk of the needs for extra money — the sheriff’s office and social action funding.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri requested more than $3.4 million over his budget target for what he described as “absolute essentials” plus millions more in additional needs. The preliminary budget includes $675,000 for electronic monitoring, $1.3 million jail pharmacy costs and $1.5 million in jail overtime costs due to housing federal inmates, and it also $1.6 million for vehicle replacements.

The sheriff also will get an extra $500,000 to spend at his discretion to help fund the nearly $4.66 million in additional needs. The needs include $1.6 million in law enforcement academy positions; $771,000 for school guardians, $1.2 million for replacement of the facial recognition system, $450,000 for the aircraft digital downlink system, $387,300 for marine vessels and motors and $208,790 for two full fulltime employees to staff the marine patrol unit.

OM&B recommends continuation of current social action programs while providing recurring funds for priorities determined through a competitive grant process. The preliminary budget sets aside $750,000 for social action programs.

However, requests total $1.633 million, and include $426,760 for STARS program north county; $350,000 for home delivered meals for seniors (Meals on Wheels); $276,300 for Urban Youth Empowerment Program; $50,000 for Solar Energy Loan Fund; $80,000 for I Support Youth transportation; $50,000 for Cultivating Heritage and Intellectual Collaboration; and $150,000 for Work Readiness Training Dream Center.

Parks and Conservation Resources

No money was given for the three requests from Parks and Conservation Resources, instead OM&B will use an “alternative approach” to support the Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation need for $35,000 and the $40,440 requested for an additional spray technician.

As to the $384,860 asked for to fund six full time park ranger positions, Berger said Parks and Conservation Resources would be establishing performance metrics to determine optimal staffing levels to achieve various levels of service. He said requests for additional positions might be reconsidered during when staff began work on the FY 2021 budget.

Commissioner Pat Gerard expressed concern that the needs for the county parks were not being met, pointing in the big difference in the number of staff pre-recession and today. She believes park staff is “being neglected.”

Commissioner Janet Long thinks lack of staff could be a security issue. Burton pointed out that today’s staff has been prioritized, allowing the county to provide the same level of service for less money.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he recognized that there was a new way of doing things today. But that doesn’t negate the fact that staffing levels are down, he said.

“In some cases, you have to add bodies,” he said.

Commission Chair Karen Seel reminded fellow commissioners how painful it had been during the recession.

“We laid off 1,000 people,” she said. “I thought the sky was going to fall down and it never did.”

Seel worries that rehiring staff won’t be sustainable in the future and doesn’t want to have to go through another period of layoffs.

Human services

Four of seven requests for human services programs are included in the preliminary budget, including $683,520 for the Collaborative Behavioral Health Team and $151,000 for the Homeless Crisis Response System Front Door program.

The budget includes $40,000 of the $100,000 requested to restore drug court services and $125,000 of the $250,000 asked for to make up the gap in operational funding for the Florida Dream Center.

No money was allocated to nearly $20 million in funding requests for behavioral health needs including Marchman beds. The commission is scheduled to discuss those needs at a June 11 work session.

Other requests

OM&B said no to the $500,000 in funding requested for the Housing Trust Fund. Instead, the plan is to leverage Penny for Pinellas funding to support affordable housing. No money was allocated toward the $171,000 ask for to support the 2020 Census. The matter was deferred to allow staff to research best practices and look for partnerships.

The Public Defender will get the $146,000 requested for crossover case managers. Pinellas will continue to pay $67,630 as a local funding contribution for Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.

No money will go to the $150,000 requested for the North Pinellas Trail Loop, the $350,000 for the Anclote River Turnaround or $150,000 for the John’s Pass Marina.

Convention and Visitors Bureau

OM&B also considered requests to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourist development tax money. The preliminary budget includes $60,000 to provide a health care benefit to Creative Pinellas employees. Creative Pinellas also will receive $71,070 to support and expand its gallery program. A request to expand its summer camp program was denied.

The CVB also agreed to partially fund the World’s First Airline Monument and public art program. The request was $75,000 but only $15,000 was allocated. Berger said the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport would provide $25,000, and St. Petersburg Council member Charlie Gerdes has promised to find the rest of the money.

The CVB approved a request for $100,000 to pay for a study on the viability of a teaching restaurant and incubator at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. Lastly, the CVB agreed to provide $350,000 for security improvements at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.