The proposed FY 2012 budget is $2.95 billion, which is $566 million less than FY 2011.
"Our mantra really has been thriving within our means," Merrill said, adding that next year's budget will be innovative, leaner and more efficient.
With less money coming in, the commission will make difficult decisions about outsourcing certain projects to private entities. The first of which will likely be after-school programs.
"I am absolutely 100 percent committed to the after-school and to Head Start," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "What I'm not absolutely committed to is that we have to be the ones physically doing it."
The county will transfer responsibility and operating costs to non-profit groups like the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs. Parents who can not afford the services will receive money from Early Learning Coalition funding to pay for the after-school care.
"I know there are many, many more providers in this community that do 'A+' rated jobs in taking care of our at-risk children, and we have got to search deep and hard," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "I know we can partner with other organizations that would really do probably as good, if not a better job in delivering services, and probably more cost-effective for us."
Commissioners emphasized that the county is restructuring, not eliminating the after-school program, that Head Start currently has no planned changes in its future, and that many after-school athletic programs will continue to provide services.
"We know there will be change," Merrill said. "We need to be able to help our customers make the shift."
Another area to be squeezed is county employment. Departmental cuts of $47 million will force the organization to eliminate a total of 449 positions, of which 134 are currently vacant.
The Voluntary Separation Incentive Program would allow retirement-age employees to voluntarily resign by the end of the month in exchange for up to $25,000.
"We're anticipating that up to maybe 100 employees may take advantage of that," Merrill said.
Though Merrill said the last thing the county wants to do is put more people on the street, the layoffs are designed to consolidate operations and streamline services.
The budget proposal also includes $2 million in Seminole Gaming Compact revenue for the Florida Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, STRAZ Center for the Performing Arts, Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa Bay History Center and Glazer Children's Museum to help stimulate growth and economy by generating new tourism revenue. In exchange for the funding, the county will create accountability guidelines, performance expectations, contractual obligations and monitoring based on attendance or some other objective measure, so the institutions have to continue to earn the money.
In order to prevent tax increases, Merrill proposed holding off on lower-priority capital improvement projects in areas such as transportation until FY 2014. The board hopes that the economy will bounce back, and more tax revenue will be available in the future. Commissioners suggested excluding from the postponements priorities such as developing the USF area, expanding Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, restoring Ybor City and creating infrastructure to support Orient Road development, a new Moffitt research park and a theoretical baseball stadium on fairground property (fervently backed by Commissioner Ken Hagan).
This strategic community redevelopment will be funded by Tax Increment Financing, or borrowing from future gains that result from the investment's impact on development in the area. The hope is that the economy will turn around, jobs will be created and the investment will pay off exceptionally.
Commissioner Les Miller said, "This TIF is probably one of the best ideas that we could come up with."
Though the county is bound by negotiation requirements to give Raymond James Stadium $6 million next year and $8 million in FY 2013 for improvements, Commissioner Victor Crist said it's going to be hard give a straight answer to the children and parents drastically affected by the after-school cuts "when they're going to be reading about enhancements of new refrigerators and carpeting and electronics in their place."
Another project the county will not put on the back-burner is the creation of a $37 million Emergency Operations Center. The proposed 100,000 square foot facility will be more than three times the size of the current EOC. It will include an advanced traffic center and fire rescue headquarters.
Commissioners demanded that EOC construction experts consider the threat of terrorist attacks and the elevation of the site's future location, keeping in mind the effects of a catastrophic natural disaster such as a hurricane. They also stressed the importance of building the EOC properly, so that reinvestment will not be necessary in five years. Yet they also insist it be built sparingly to avoid an embarrassment akin to Tallahassee's Taj Mahal fallout.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe said, "We don't want any large, extravagant facility, obviously."
Budget adjustments will be made over the summer to account for incoming grants, new revenue estimates, the final property tax roll and additional efficiencies that further support the budget. Two or three additional budget workshops are in their planning stages, and a flagging process will allow commissioners to add or remove items from the budget to be voted on at a later time.
Merrill said the goal is to create "a strong financial community with strong economic development, a return of jobs, and care for those who can not care for themselves, but through a program of self-sufficiency."