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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Hillsborough County's budget cuts to run deep

TAMPA - Layoffs, recreation center closings and the elimination of after-school programs. Those are among the highlights of Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill's preliminary budgets for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, which call for layoffs, the elimination of vacant positions and massive spending cuts to plug anticipated revenue shortfalls. Overall, the proposed $2.95 billion FY 2012 budget is $566 million less than the current fiscal year, mostly due to decreases in debt, and capital improvement spending. In FY 2013, the budget will rise to $3.19 billion, mostly due to capital improvement projects. "We have achieved significant offsets to our loss of property with cost cutting measures that should have a minimal impact on the quality of most of the services we provide," Merrill wrote in his executive summary.
Commissioners, who weren't given a copy of the proposed budget until 4 p.m. on Friday, hadn't yet reviewed the voluminous document and most weren't prepared to comment. Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the budget cuts reflect Merrill's efforts to restructure county government in the face of dwindling taxes and other sources of revenue. "The restructuring that is taking place, as hard as it is, is absolutely necessary," he said. "We're reshaping government to reflect the times … more efficient and cost effective." At least 449 jobs will be eliminated, most of them vacant positions, before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, and the county won't be offering pay raises to any employees. Many of the staff reductions would be made through early retirement and buyouts. The county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department is expected to take the biggest hit with a proposed consolidation of 42 recreation centers into 12 regional ones, translating into layoffs of 27 percent of its staff and outsourcing of maintenance work. The parks department has also proposed eliminating its after-school programs, which cost the county $8 million a year and presently serves fewer than 2,000 children. The county school district said it can absorb this number into its program, parks officials have said. Ahead of the 2010 budget, county commissioners spared county recreation centers, parks and after-school programs from the budget ax following a public outcry, opting instead to impose new recreation fees or increase existing ones to pay for them. Merrill recommends cutting the county's funding for nonprofit agencies by 20 percent in fiscal year 2012, a reduction of nearly $1 million from the current fiscal year. He also proposes using $2 million in proceeds from the Seminole Gaming Compact to help wean several venues – including the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo, Museum of Science and Industry and Tampa Bay History Museum – off the county's general fund. A drop in revenue from the Community Investment Tax will force the county to postpone more than $127 million in planned capital improvement projects until fiscal year 2014. Despite revenue shortfalls, Merrill said in his budget message, he won't be asking commissioners to increase the countywide property tax rate, which has hasn't gone up in 18 consecutive years. In fact, he has recommended a slight decrease in the property tax rate in FY2012. In the 2010 budget, Merrill raided a repair and maintenance fund to bridge an $18 million hole that remained after laying off workers, merging and eliminating departments and other cuts. Next fiscal year, however, that pot of money won't be available to balance the budget. The commission will make the final decision on what cuts will be made before the budget is approved, but declining revenue for operating expenses leaves little wiggle room. As of Jan. 1, taxable property value within the county totaled about $62 billion, down 4.3 percent from $65 billion the previous year, according to the property appraiser's office. The lower valuations mean Hillsborough will next year collect about $17 million less in property taxes, which fund roughly 30 percent of the county's operating expenses. Still, the silver lining for county officials is the projected decline in taxable values won't be as financially damaging as the double-digit decreases of the past several years. Merrill's budget also pledges support for economic development incentives, including proposals to create a $2 million "closing fund," a small business incentive fund to lure new businesses and inject capital into existing local businesses to create new jobs. "In severe economic downturns, such as the one we are currently experiencing," Merrill wrote, "government can provide a valuable role in stimulating economic activity." The county commission will hold the first of a series of budget workshops at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Frederick B. Karl County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd. Copies of the FY 2012 budget are available for the public and will be posted on the county's website, www.hillsboroughcounty.org. Commissioners will vote on a final budget in September. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1. cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679
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