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Officials feed at Hernando County's trough but refuse to help fill it

Republicans in Washington, including our own Rep. Richard Nugent, are teenagers playing chicken while the rest of us ride in the back seat, helpless and horrified.

So when it comes to public spending, it's hard to imagine anyone could match them for irresponsible posturing. But a few elected officials in Hernando County at least seem to be trying.

County Commissioners Jim Adkins and Wayne Dukes don't have any sound ideas on how to significantly narrow the $4.5 million budget gap they were presented last week. Yet they are sure about one thing: They won't vote for new taxes. Not even the paltry 3.5 percent increase in the property rate the relatively clear-thinking majority of commissioners — all Republicans, as are Dukes and Adkins — tentatively approved.

Calling this an increase is somewhat misleading, by the way, because it doesn't come close to making up for the tax break most of us can expect this year because of declining property values.

How much have they declined? Last time I checked, the average home in the county was assessed for tax purposes at slightly less than $100,000. Factor in a homestead exemption, and the rate increase commissioners are talking about comes to something like $9 for a typical homeowner.

Such a small sum renders newspaper writers' favorite comparison for an insignificant tax burden — the cost of a family pizza night — inadequate. This is more like a sub and soda at lunch, a tiny sacrifice that, along with a lot of other budgetary shuffling, might allow the county to save a few vital services.

That includes, of course, law enforcement, which brings us to the subject of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, whose stance on the budget is, if possible, even less reasonable than Adkins' and Dukes'.

As Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt and John Woodrow Cox reported two weeks ago, Nienhuis's proposed budget for law enforcement and the county jail consumes $41 million of the county's $91 million general fund. Yet Nienhuis refuses to support commissioners by acknowledging the county can't continue to get by with steadily declining revenue, that it needs at least a slight increase in the tax rate.

The Sheriff's Office has been the big hog at the trough for decades; now, it seems, Nienhuis is claiming every last corn cob and watermelon rind.

Maybe such a comparison strikes you as crude and unfair. But consider the political selfishness involved.

Nienhuis is trying to appeal to the public by taking a hard line on taxes. At the same time, he wants to spend a huge share of these taxes on his political base — his employees, including 195.8 in non-sworn positions, according to a staffing proposal released by the office earlier this year.

No doubt Nienhuis is motivated by loyalty to his workers and a sense of duty to the community. But let's acknowledge that there's also an element of political patronage here and that this is the last thing the county should spend money on at this point.

I've been on vacation in North Carolina recently, so I haven't followed every nuance of the ongoing budget debate. Maybe that makes me out of touch. Or, maybe I'm more in touch than ever.

That's because I've been staying in Hernando County's competition, a part of western North Carolina refashioning its economy around attracting retirees. The newly arrived ones I've talked to were drawn not only for the area's beauty and cool summers, but also its public spirit — the vibrancy of its small towns, its appealing parks and libraries.

Can Florida, even with its mild winters, compete? Only if our spending decisions are designed to help build community rather than preserve political careers.

Officials feed at Hernando County's trough but refuse to help fill it 07/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 10:46am]

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