Hillsborough commission's pet projects put priorities on hold

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners talked tough at the start of this budget season about making their government live within its means.

They pledged to end duplicative services and privatize where possible. They called for efficiency. More than anything, they said county government must focus on needs, not wants.

But their actions through the waning weeks of budget talks have sent a different message as they've stared into crowds of angry parents and fielded calls from employees facing layoffs.

Commissioners have resisted each of County Administrator Mike Merrill's major proposals to consolidate or privatize services. And for all their talk about taking a microscope to his budget for next year, they have added millions in new spending.

"The full board is feeling the pressure from citizens who call," said Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the lone exception in adding to the budget. "We have to have the stomach to hang tough."

Whether the additional money is for wants or needs is debatable. Largely in the name of economic development, commissioners have added more than $12 million in spending, while identifying only $3.4 million to cut.

The add-ons include $2 million toward construction of a south Hillsborough YMCA and $100,000 for a Ruskin cultural arts center. Also pledged: $1.5 million to subsidize sports tournaments, visiting conferences and moviemakers.

Commissioners set aside $4.5 million to preserve historic buildings, seldom a priority in flush years. One is seeking $82,000 to fix up two Sulphur Springs buildings donated to the county for use as a museum that would house, among other things, art made from chicken bones.

"There is an expectation of elected officials to give money out," said Chairman Al Higginbotham, who pushed for nearly $1 million in cuts to the county attorney's office but also won $250,000 for the county's Economic Development Corp. "But there is a greater demand now to be mindful of the limited resources we have in terms of taxpayers' cash."

During a budget meeting last month, even new Commissioner Les Miller — a Democrat and former state legislator — expressed shock at the money grab. When Sandy Murman, a Republican fellow House veteran made her pitch for the YMCA — $2 million spread over four years — he blurted out what he was thinking.

"Two millions dollars?" he asked.

Getting the swing of how things work, he pledged to come back with his own pet project — the Sulphur Springs museum with the chicken bone art. Miller said afterward that he's still getting used to the county's budgeting process and followed the model he was seeing from other commissioners to secure money for an area that needs it.

An attempt to reach Murman was unsuccessful Friday. She leads commissioners in winning approval of pet projects, with $4.6 million secured so far, while arguing for greater efficiency. In addition to the YMCA and Ruskin cultural center, she has gotten $2.4 million over three years to start a program to divert the mentally ill from jails, $35,000 for the Brandon Chamber of Commerce and $135,000 to combat homelessness.

She has said most of the money promotes economic development, while the diversion program will save money long term.

During the same meeting commissioners were approving many of their pet projects, Murman lamented that Merrill's budget proposal will save someone with a $200,000 home just 75 cents on next year's property tax bill.

"Boy, I'll tell you, there's a lot of people out there really hurting," Murman said. "I was hoping we could do more."

Longer-serving commissioners said the modest tax cut is a symbolic continuation of 18 consecutive years of rate cuts that have added up to much more.

The commissioner add-ons have symbolic value as well. They are a small bump to an overall $3 billion budget. And because they are largely construction projects, or onetime grants paid in large part by sales or other taxes, they have little effect on the board's ability to lower property taxes.

But the new expenditures come even as Merrill's spending plan calls for delays for two years on $128 million in construction projects, mostly road work, that had been a top commission priority.

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A bigger challenge for Merrill going forward is the board's conflicting signals about consolidating or privatizing services. For months, commissioners underscored their desire to do both.

So Merrill proposed dramatically shrinking the number of parks offering recreational after-school programs that serve as low-cost, tax-subsidized day care. His rationale: The school district offers similar programs.

He proposed turning over county Section 8 renter's assistance to the Tampa Housing Authority, which has its own program. And he asked commission approval to hire private landscapers to maintain parks.

Commissioners instead unanimously approved keeping after-school programs at most of the parks where Merrill proposed eliminating them after parents turned out by the hundreds to protest. And they initially rejected what they called flawed bids for park maintenance, but changed their minds and accepted them on a 4-3 vote.

The Section 8 consolidation plan passed only after withering criticism from some commissioners.

Merrill said it's his job to craft a budget plan and commissioners' right to change it.

He said he thought his proposals reflected the commission's policy guidance, but he may seek reassurance moving forward. After all, next up are potentially sweeping changes to programs that cater to the county's most vulnerable children, from those enrolled in Head Start prekindergarten to those in foster care.

"I think I will be more cautious before devoting a lot of my time and staff's time until I get a clarification on their direction," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough commission's pet projects put priorities on hold 08/27/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 28, 2011 12:09am]

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