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Hernando County budget drama has a bit of a surprise ending

It's not exactly a grand stage, but even Hernando County Commission meetings offer some political theater.

And it was entertaining to see Commissioner Jeff Stabins redirect the story line Tuesday.

Commissioner David Russell had previously asked budget director George Zoettlein for a decade's worth of figures, showing spending hasn't been slashed, but is just returning to preboom levels — another variation on the no-new-taxes theme.

But Stabins asked for these numbers to be broken down further to show how much money goes to different areas of county government.

His point? The cost of functions directly under County Commission control — including parks, planning and code enforcement — increased about 60 percent since 2000, which is not bad if you figure that population gains and inflation were responsible for a 53 percent increase.

The Sheriff's Office's budget, meanwhile, has climbed 103 percent, and that of the privately run (until later this month) Hernando County Jail has soared 225 percent. And, Stabins said, don't forget that the fund to build new courtrooms includes "$13 million we took from our own savings (in previous years) and very graciously renamed the judicial fund."

Overall, he said, "if you look at the money in law enforcement … it's staggering."

Sure, Stabins likes the limelight. But he's also right.

For example, compare costs of law enforcement — cracking down on the small minority of residents who disobey the law — to parks and recreation, which improves the lives of the law-abiding majority. And if you don't care about all of the research showing the subtle benefits of parks — that they keep kids fit, engaged and occupied, that they lower the stress levels of parents and bring in outside investment — you might at least care about this: Parks make your house worth more.

"Every block you move away from a park, property values go down," said Peter Witt, a professor of recreation, park and tourism sciences at Texas A&M University.

As matters stood Tuesday, the commission had already agreed to cut $1 million each from parks maintenance and the Sheriff's Office, which sounds fair enough until you consider that the current budget of the first is $2.5 million, and the second $32 million.

Consider also that the sheriff's budget is almost exactly the same as it was in 2007, one of the last flush years of the boom. It's gone up and down a few percentage points since then, and the budget now includes about $800,000 for two new duties — countywide dispatch and emergency management.

And of course, nobody doubts that law enforcement is absolutely crucial or wants to dismantle what seems to be a first-rate agency.

But still.

The parks maintenance budget has dropped from $3.1 million since 2007, and the budget for recreation has fallen even more dramatically, from $873,000 to $597,000 this year. About half of the rec employees are gone. So is the decades-old summertime savior of working parents, Camp Funshine. In the coming year, the recreation budget is expected to drop to $362,312, with the number of employees being cut in half again, to a total of five.

Just a reminder. That's to serve a population of 165,000.

No, our ballfields won't go to seed or turn into dust bowls. The commission plans to close the parks maintenance budget gap with increased user fees, most of which seem reasonable, and, possibly, with a grab of tax money meant to acquire environmentally sensitive land, which is not reasonable at all.

This allowed the commission to hold the tax rate steady, which, with the decline in property values, really means a sizable tax reduction.

So, things did play out the way Russell wanted, and the way that anybody with even a passing knowledge of county government could have predicted.

But the commission was also swayed by Stabins' argument. It agreed to make up the remaining shortfall of about $1.5 million by asking for cuts, deferentially suggesting 3 percent might be a nice figure, from all of the constitutional officers, including, of course, Sheriff Richard Nugent.

It was a bit of a surprise ending — and if not a happy one for everybody, it was at least just.

Hernando County budget drama has a bit of a surprise ending 07/31/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 31, 2010 1:22pm]

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