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Hillsborough works to end annual county budget free-for-all

TAMPA — For years, the final weeks of budget deliberations by Hillsborough County commissioners were marked by a frenzied dash for goodies.

The administrator would purposely set aside a pool of money, often tens of millions of dollars, that would be left uncommitted in the annual spring spending proposal. Commissioners would spend the summer "flagging" pet projects that could be paid for from that pool as they heard from citizens and special interests, or sometimes wait until the last minute.

Then, during one of the final budget meetings, commissioners would line up at the turkey and pork buffet they had assembled and binge. Savvy citizens and nonprofits, aware of the rite, would appear to plead for morsels — or even whole Butterballs — that were consumed sometimes in mere minutes.

That spectacle was all but absent from this year's recent budget deliberations as commissioners agreed with County Administrator Mike Merrill to end the annual feast. Those who supported the plan say it ended a process that led to hasty decisions not weighed against big-picture needs and limitations.

"I would say it is by far the most uniform and seamless budget process I've been associated with," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, a Republican who's the board's longest-serving current member.

Instead, commissioners were encouraged to identify personal priorities early as the budget was being crafted by Merrill. Those proposals were then vetted by staff to see if they furthered the commission's overall stated goals of creating jobs, promoting special places and improving the quality of life for all, not to mention whether limited money would be better spent elsewhere.

"It allowed us to work in a more rational way," Merrill said. "The flagging process just opened up the door for anybody to walk in the door. The nature of it made it hard to say no."

The decision to eliminate flagging was aided by the recognition that the county has had less discretionary money. For the past few years, tax receipts have fallen with the sagging economy, though they rebounded modestly this year.

That has led to some awkward moments during the flagging process.

Commissioner Les Miller, a Democrat and former state legislator, expressed surprise two years ago during one of his first budget-crafting sessions. He watched as fellow board members divided the discretionary money with little debate.

Just like that, commissioners agreed to set aside $4.5 million to preserve historic buildings, $100,000 for a Ruskin cultural arts center and $2 million for construction of a south county YMCA.

"Jesus Christ," he said. "We're flagging $2 million?"

Apparently no one had tipped him off about the feast. So at that meeting, he announced he planned to come back soon with his own request. He did, securing $82,000 to fix up a Sulphur Springs building so it could function as a museum featuring chicken bone art.

But he said the process left him troubled. The board was handing out money at a time county employees were facing layoffs, and with little or no discussion.

"I had some real heartburn doing that," Miller said.

Other commissioners have been pushing for the county to develop a strategic plan and base spending decisions on it. They completed that exercise earlier in the year, crafting a priorities playbook that places job creation above all else.

So this year, they took some of their discretionary money and added to what they set aside each year as incentive money for businesses looking to open or expand in Hillsborough. Because creating special places also is a priority, they tacked on money for parks and restored money cut in past years for resurfacing roads.

"I don't think this is about turkeys or people having their names next to an item," said Commissioner Sandra Murman, a Republican and former legislator who has proven adept at securing funding for pet projects. "It's things that we're doing to help our citizens and get the best return on investment for their tax dollars."

And to be sure, commissioners haven't eliminated turkeys. They just get revealed earlier and reviewed more methodically.

This year, for instance, close watchers of budget talks know Hagan helped secure $5.5 million for intersection work in the Bloomingdale area as a salve to residents there concerned about traffic from a proposed development. They might know Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, helped get $1.3 million toward the new Courtney Campbell Causeway pedestrian bridge.

"I think the end result is the same thing," Hagan said. "It's just a different process that avoided the horse trading."

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

Hillsborough works to end annual county budget free-for-all 09/29/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 29, 2013 11:55pm]

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