Stray Cats Roam Tampa as U.S. Local Services Lapse With Job Cuts

Call the Animal Services Department in Hillsborough County, Florida, and you’ll hear this recording:

“Please be advised that due to budget cuts, Animal Services no longer handles nuisance calls, such as barking dogs or trapping of cats. Effective Oct. 1, the shelter will be closed to the public on Mondays as well as Sundays and holidays.”

Residents of Hillsborough, home to Tampa, must contend with stray cats and their neighbor’s yappy Chihuahua without government help after plunging revenue forced the county to shrink payrolls excluding law enforcement by 15 percent since 2007. Fewer workers means the county also cut back on litter removal, original programs on its television channel and maintenance of athletic fields.

Hillsborough, one of only three Florida counties with the top credit rank of all three major ratings companies, isn’t alone in lowering labor costs to cope with plunging revenue in the longest recession since World War II. U.S. state and local payrolls have contracted 2.7 percent since their peak in August 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We are way past anybody trimming at the edges,” Jon Shure, director of state fiscal strategies at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a telephone interview. “These cuts are affecting key services.”

State Reductions

Teacher furloughs in Hawaii reduced the school term by 17 days this year; South Carolina’s Juvenile Justice Department cut 260 workers, closing five group homes, two dormitories and 25 after-school programs; and Arizona shut 11 Motor Vehicle Department offices, firing 115 employees, said a Feb. 9 report by the center, which studies policies affecting low- and moderate-income families.

Florida, which already has the lowest ratio of employees to population among states, plans to slash 4,526 positions, or 3.6 percent of its workforce, closing four juvenile-detention facilities and slimming the agency for growth management.

The reductions have left the ratio of U.S. state-government non-education employees to residents at its lowest since 1976, Chris Mauro, director of municipal research at RBC Capital Markets in New York, said in a June 13 note to clients.

For local governments, income from property taxes, their main revenue source, has plunged along with home values. An S&P/Case-Shiller index of prices in 20 cities dropped 31 percent in five years. That, coupled with reductions in federal and state aid, means municipal cutbacks are unlikely to end soon, said Joshua Zeitz, an analyst with MF Global Inc., a New York-based broker and dealer.

Challenging Year

“Local governments face their most challenging year in several decades,” Zeitz said in a June 9 note to clients. “Over the next six months, we expect large numbers of public-sector layoffs.”

Taxable property values in Hillsborough, on Florida’s west coast, fell 29 percent from 2007 to 2011, Tim Wilmath, director of valuation for the appraiser’s office, said in an e-mail.

That will mean more reductions for a county staff now at 5,968 excluding sheriffs. The proposed $3 billion 2012 budget, 22 percent smaller than in 2007, lowers authorized positions other than law enforcement by 5.3 percent.

To avoid more service cuts for its 1.2 million residents, Hillsborough is “transitioning” work to non-profit and private entities, said Michael Merrill, the county administrator. Those in an afterschool program set to be canceled will be encouraged to attend the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Clubs, he said.

Other Providers

“While we’ve worked within our available resources, we’ve done that without sacrificing services,” Merrill told commissioners June 8. “The service may be provided by someone else, such as the YMCA, but the service will be there.”

Bonnie Dixon, 55, is one such provider. She captures the stray cats that Animal Services can’t after its staff was reduced 27 percent since 2007.

“Fifteen of us are very active trappers in Hillsborough,” said the Riverview resident, who caught about 400 cats last year using sardines, tuna or chicken from Yum! Brands Inc.’s KFC restaurant as bait. She brings them to the Humane Society for neutering and releases them. “Most of us are booked every single week,” Dixon said.

Sherry Silk, executive director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, said her privately funded organization increased the number of animals it accepts from the county’s adoption program.

“Each year we’re taking in more and more,” she said in a telephone interview. “The reduction of their staff and cutting budgets is certainly affecting the animals.”

New Priorities

The Hillsborough Animal Services Department had to make public safety and protecting animals from abuse and neglect a priority over “quality of life” issues like responding to complaints about barking dogs, said Bill Armstrong, the retiring director.

After the loss of 30 staff, it’s decreased the number of animals coming into the shelter by encouraging people to spay their pets, discouraging surrenders and expanding the adoption program.

At Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, a non-profit organization that recently merged with Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful, the volunteer base doubled since the county curbed litter clean-up.

People “get it,” Debra Evenson, executive director, said in a telephone interview. “It’s where we live, it’s our responsibility.”

Plenty to Do

The volunteers have plenty to do, according to a “litter index” they compiled. On a scale of one to four, with four being dirtiest, Hillsborough’s rubbish level rose to 1.97 last year from 1.56 in 2007.

Shifting work to outsiders hasn’t always gone smoothly. In 2007, the county asked volunteer youth groups to take over maintaining athletic fields.

“Many have struggled with the responsibility,” said a strategic plan released April 21 for the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, which has lost a quarter of its staff.

At the county Communications Department, which lost 23 percent of its staff from 2007 to 2011, television programming has been curtailed, said Willie Puz, a spokesman. In place of some original shows, such as a daily local-news briefing, board meetings are now shown “over and over again,” he said.

State and municipal spending cuts reduced the national economic growth rate by 0.39 percentage point in the first quarter of 2011 after cutting it by 0.18 point in 2010 and 0.11 point in 2009, according to U.S. Commerce Department data.

“When someone in the public sector loses their job, it’s just as bad as when someone in the private sector loses their job,” said Shure of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Hillsborough, where unemployment was 10.4 percent in May compared with the 9.1 percent U.S. rate, will help fired workers find new jobs, Merrill said at the June 8 commission meeting.

“The last thing we want to do,” he said, “is to put more people on the street.”

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