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Enough ranting about waste; let's get to the cutbacks

Can we just drop it, please?

Can we stop the talk about government waste, stop accusing public employees of feeding ever more greedily at the public trough?

It's time to move beyond the issue of taxation and spending, which has dominated local political discourse for more than a year.

Or, maybe I should say, we need to shift the question from whether the county and schools are spending too much to how they can get by with a lot less.

Because, for better or worse, advocates of lower taxes have had their way. The flood of public funds some of them talked about is drying up fast.

Last year, the state mandated local property tax cuts; in the fall, voters passed a constitutional amendment doubling the homestead exemption.

Still to come is a referendum on Amendment 5, which would eliminate local property taxes for schools (and require the Legislature to replace the funding through other sources).

And, finally, market forces are finally doing their part in driving down taxes.

The total appraisal for the county's taxable property will drop more than 10 percent this year, even factoring in new construction, and values are likely to continue to fall for several more years.

Overall, the county faces a budget shortfall of about $4.5-million and the school district as much as $5-million.

We may see higher user fees for parks, service cuts for libraries, the county cannery and THE Bus, and, if County Administrator David Hamilton has his way, the functions of two dozen county agencies squeezed into half that many departments. School superintendent Wayne Alexander, meanwhile, has floated the idea of doing away with field trips, middle school sports and as many as 54 teaching positions.

Maybe because I have school-age children, I think funding for teachers should be sacrosanct. We need more of them and, to compete with other states, we need to pay them better.

Beyond that, we have no choice but to cut services.

Because government agencies are a lot like we are. Two or three years ago, a lot of us had extra money we didn't spend very wisely.

The county, though I'm late in admitting it, did the same. Since 1997, the appraised value of property in Hernando climbed 173 percent, according to the Property Appraiser's Office.

Some of the extra cash was consumed by services needed for a growing county. All you have to do is read a recent audit of lavish overtime payments at the Emergency Management department to know that some money was wasted.

But I don't think agencies have enough money to waste right now. Angry rhetoric about how to spend what's left won't help, any more than it helps families to argue about money.

No, we need to take a thoughtful approach to trimming the budget while preserving long-term investments in parks, roads, buildings and well-trained employees.

I'm more hopeful this can happen after I heard one of the leaders of the tax cutting crusade, Linda Hayward, praise Hamilton's moves so far.

"I think the opportunity and the desire for real reform is right there at the driver's seat,'' she said.

Sounds like maybe she's ready to move on, too.

Enough ranting about waste; let's get to the cutbacks 07/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 8:02pm]
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