Today was the official reopening of Checkers on South Missouri Avenue. I joined Chris to welcome the first customer Maria. Today’s first 100 customers in line received free fries for one year.
Clearwater’s budget is back on solid ground
CLEARWATER — The city’s budget, once in free fall, is back on solid ground, stabilized by resurgent property values and rainy-day reserves.
With the city’s $113 million general fund growing by $4 million since last year, city leaders are pushing for a “status quo” budget that could end years of deep fiscal cuts.
The city’s property tax rate will likely stay the same, a preliminary budget shows, and the city workforce won’t face further layoffs. Most, in fact, will receive raises.
“Clearwater has weathered another budget storm,” Mayor George Cretekos said. “Hopefully things are going to get better next year. I’m feeling optimistic.”
Property values here dropped $110 million over the last year, continuing a 33 percent drop since their 2007 peak but slowing in their decline. Property tax revenue, the lion’s share of the city’s operating fund, dropped 1 percent.
All city departments were told to cut 1 percent of spending, leading to $700,000 in cuts. Other city taxes and charges, from business tax receipts to boosted revenues at Pier 60, helped fill the fiscal gap.
Changes to city pensions — an agreement reached by city and union negotiators — could save the city $4.5 million in their first year. But first they’ll need voters’ approval in a November referendum.
In the meantime, city leaders will balance Clearwater’s budget using $1.6 million saved in the city’s $20 million general reserve fund.
Another $1.4 million in reserves will go toward new vehicles for the fire department: $500,000 to replace one of eight front-line fire engines and $850,000 to replace a heavy rescue unit carrying specialized equipment for fires and car crashes.
City staffers recommended to City Council that the property tax rate remain at 5.15 mills, or $5.15 for every $1,000 of taxable property. For example, owners of a $150,000 home with a full $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $515 in property taxes.
The city shed a fifth of its workforce in the last five years, with more than two dozen firefighters, police dispatchers and other employees cut last year.
But no large layoffs are planned for the next fiscal year. In fact, the city is adding employees to its stormwater and gas systems, as well as an officer for its newly begun red-light camera program.
Administrators and general employees will be given 2.5 percent raises, and unionized police officers and firefighters will receive 2.5 percent bonuses, over the next year. City Council salaries, which pay members about $20,000 a year, will be increased 3.6 percent.
Construction will begin over the next year on two projects funded by the Penny for Pinellas sales tax: the $4.7 million renovation of the Countryside Library and the $2.3 million renovation of the Sid Lickton baseball and softball fields, located near the Clearwater Airpark.
Another $500,000 will be spent to refurbish the Pier 60 bait house, eroded by saltwater, and a $1.2 million development-services center in the Municipal Services Building, as suggested by last year’s Business Task Force.
Improvements to Bright House Field, a new water treatment plant in Countyside, and more than $500,000 on traffic calming in the Wood Valley and Hillcrest neighborhoods will also account for city capital spending.
The city will spend $150,000 less than first estimated to maintain tennis and basketball courts, swimming pools, playgrounds and park amenities like lights and benches.
The City Council will discuss the budget July 16 and the property tax rate July 19. The budget’s first public hearing will be Sept. 4, with final adoption set for later that month.
Tonight I visited with the Edgewater Drive Homeowners Association during its monthly meeting. Neighborhood residents and I discussed the city’s budget, pension reform issues, and the Clearwater homeless initiatives. This homeowners association is one of the most active ones in the city; it participates in the Neighborhoods’ Day program and in several community cleanup campaigns. “Paint Your Heart Out, Clearwater” has also been a neighborhood project. Mary Kate Belniak is the president.
Yesterday I was honored to have been able to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Phillies-Braves game at Citizens Bank Park. The tarp was on home plate and the pitcher’s mound because inclement weather delayed the start of the game by about an hour. The Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947, and their presence in the city has a tremendous economic impact throughout the year.
The thousands who attended the Clearwater Celebrates America Fourth of July festivities at Coachman Park were not disappointed with this year’s fireworks and concert featuring the Mostly Pops Orchestra and John and Mary Kay Wilson and their son Paul. The Clearwater Parks and Recreation Department’s special events team under Brian Craig presented the most spectacular fireworks display in the Tampa Bay area. People in downtown Clearwater and those on the waters of Clearwater Harbor and on the beach were thrilled by the fireworks that even erupted from the water.
John and Mary Kay Wilson with the Mostly Pops Orchestra will be featured at Coachman Park on July 4th as Clearwater celebrates Independence Day with this annual concert. Fireworks will follow. The gates open at 4pm, and a variety of activities and food vendors will be available until the concert and fireworks show begin at 7:30pm.
Thanks to the leadership of Senator Jack Latvala and Representative Ed Hooper the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter the Dolphin, will become eligible to apply for funding through Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, the county’s tourist development council. The legislation allows aquariums to compete for “bed tax” funds administered by counties. Governor Scott visited Winter yesterday, and following the tour and a business roundtable discussion, signed HR 1015. Standing behind Governor Scott are Representatives Larry Ahern, Ed Hooper, Jim Frishe, and Senator Jack Latvala. Others joining me in attendance were County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, South Pasadena Mayor Kathleen Peters, Belleair Bluffs Commissioner Suzy Sofer, and my colleague Bill Jonson of the Clearwater City Council.