Pasco to rank programs to help set budget priorities

On paper, Pasco County's veterans services program would not rank as a high funding priority: It does not protect the environment, create high-paying jobs or keep families safe from crime.

But it is a big help for local veterans, who last year turned out in force to protest proposed cuts to their budget. And that makes it a political risk for commissioners if they ever decide to put the program back on the chopping block.

County officials will deal with that kind of tension as they move ahead with a new way of crafting their budget that includes assigning numerical scores to hundreds of programs.

Programs would be evaluated using about 10 questions. First a program would be scored based on four basic attributes, ranging from whether it's mandated by law to whether it pays for itself.

Then officials would score how the program contributes to six long-term goals: environmental protection, public safety, transportation, growth management, economic growth and customer service.

Commissioners could use those scores to value one program over another — or not. There's still room for residents and special interest groups to make a case for funding, Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said.

"That's representative government," she said.

The idea behind the new approach, officials say, is to come up with a more objective way of deciding how to spend money amid continuing blows to the county's property tax revenue.

There's little doubt that the reductions are going to keep coming. Commissioners put off the toughest cuts last year — such as cutting the veterans program, further reducing library hours and eliminating Saturday bus service — by raising the property tax rate for the first time since 2001.

Another tax increase, especially in an election year, isn't likely. And officials say merely making across-the-board cuts in every department's budget is no longer a sustainable option.

So last year they turned to ICMA Consulting Services, which was already helping with internal reorganization, and agreed to pay another $100,000 to lead them through the new budget process.

Setting priorities in budgets sounds like common sense. But Pasco officials say the methodical ranking pushed by the consultant, which has developed its own software for the process, is rare. Coral Springs is the only other Florida government that uses it, according to Baker.

"I think it puts Pasco County in the right light," said Commissioner Jack Mariano.

This spring, county officials plan to start rolling out the ranked programs for public input before the start of budget season in July.

"I think it sends a message we're not doing the same old, same old," said commission Chairwoman Pat Mulieri.

Not that the scoring is totally objective. Department officials will score themselves. Then a team of top county staff will review those numbers to see if they make sense.

Some initial runs at the evaluations show why the process can be tricky. For instance, library officials gave themselves the highest possible score on the economic growth/job creation question, said Baker.

Their case? People use the public computers for job searches and take resume classes offered by the libraries.

The rankings are one part of the new budget process. The other new element is pulling out more of the "shadow" costs hidden in individual department budgets.

That means, for instance, figuring out how much it costs to pay the electric bill for the parks and recreation department, said budget director Mike Nurrenbrock.

Currently, the facilities department simply pays the overall county electric bill.

Charging each department for its share of the power bill would give staff more of an incentive to turn the lights off in a room since the money is now coming from their budget, he said.

"It's been pointed out to us there's no incentive to control those costs," he said.

Commissioner Ted Schrader, at a board workshop last week, raised what could turn out to be a crucial issue during budget season.

"How are we going to get the constitutional officers to buy into it, the Sheriff's Office specifically?" he said.

State mandates mean that most of what the constitutional offices do is not up for debate.

But the sheriff's budget, which includes law enforcement and jail operations, accounts for more than half of the general fund and has often been a source of contention with commissioners in years past.

Schrader said he doesn't want commissioners to be perceived as "micromanaging" the budgets for constitutional officers.

County administrator John Gallagher last week sent a letter to the constitutional officers asking for a meeting to talk about their budgets.

Kevin Doll, spokesman for Sheriff Bob White, said White had received the letter but did not have any comment until he sees what exactly the county is asking him to do.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco to rank programs to help set budget priorities 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 12:46pm]

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