NEW PORT RICHEY — Looking to plug a projected $15 million deficit in the general fund, Pasco commissioners got their first look Tuesday at a new ranking system that could determine where they spend the money next year — and where they don't.
Among the programs ranked at the top for funding, according to preliminary lists: County transit buses, engineering inspections and housing rehabilitation.
Among those ranked at the bottom: Libraries' reference services, 4-H and veterans services.
"As you get into the details, you start making value judgments," County Administrator John Gallagher told commissioners. "You may not have the flexibility like you did last year."
Last year, commissioners avoided deep cuts by agreeing to raise the tax rates for the general fund and fire services fund almost to rollback levels.
Commissioners have appeared lukewarm to making such a move this year with the general fund, though Commissioner Ted Schrader floated the possibility of raising the rate on the fire services fund. Pasco Fire Rescue Chief Anthony Lopinto said last week that any further deep cuts to his department would mean losing employees and putting the public at risk.
Taxable property values are expected to sink 11 percent this year, according to preliminary figures released by Property Appraiser Mike Wells. That translates into a nearly $15 million hit to the general fund and nearly $3 million loss to the fire services fund if the tax rates stay the same.
But some commissioners said Tuesday that the numbers may not be quite as stark as they appear. Last year, they socked away roughly $3 million to help soften the blow of another tight budget year. Tax Collector Mike Olson routinely returns excess fees, last year totaling more than $3 million.
And Commissioner Michael Cox said he wants an accounting of how many items have ended up costing less or revenues that have come in higher than expected, savings that commissioners routinely see as part of their consent agendas.
"It's millions," he said.
The preliminary ranking by county staff of roughly 200 programs, however, is not complete. Consultant ICMA, which put the scores together, mistakenly left out emergency services.
And none of the constitutional officers' programs — most notably, the Sheriff's Office, which takes up more than half of the general fund budget — are included in the ranking.
Pasco Sheriff Bob White has projected a 4 percent increase in his budget due to state-mandated increases in the retirement system, said spokesman Kevin Doll.
As for cutting other parts of the sheriff's budget to accommodate such an increase, Doll said, "We're still looking at that."
County staff members evaluated each program using about 10 questions. First, a program was scored based on four basic attributes, ranging from whether it's mandated by law to whether it could be handled by the private sector.
Then, officials scored how the program contributes to six long-term goals: environmental protection, public safety, transportation, growth management, economic growth and customer service.
Pasco is planning to unfold a public campaign on the budget in coming weeks, including conducting a survey and holding community meetings. Commissioners say they'll try to balance the scoring that comes from county staff with the input that comes from the public.
Commissioner Jack Mariano said he's interested in seeing whether the public meetings are attended only by constituent groups or by a diverse mix of people. If it's the latter, he said, that will weigh more heavily in his mind.
"There's no one set of things that's going to sway me one way or the other," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.