Hernando County could learn from Brooksville's refusal to touch reserve funds

If the Hernando County Commission had passed a budget like the city of Brooksville's, there would have been marches on the courthouse, tea party activists throwing fits, and several commissioners getting used to the idea of their lives outside of politics.

First off, the city's budget, passed Wednesday, includes the rollback property tax rate. As most of you probably know by now, this term refers to just enough of an increase in the tax rate to make up for the continuing dive in property values.

In the city's case, that means the property tax rate will increase by about 3 percent for the fiscal year that begins Monday.

True, the commission's adopted budget also includes the rollback, or a millage rate about 5 percent higher than this year's.

The difference is, the city didn't stop there. It approved a fire fee to raise $400,000, without which its rollback rate would have been much higher. And there's the even more controversial tax levied on anybody driving through the city who gets caught on camera running a red light.

Neither of these are the fairest ways of raising revenue, and the red-light fines also have the distinction of being extremely inefficient; after the state and camera company take their shares, the city will receive less than a quarter of the proceeds.

But it's better than the alternative — dipping into reserves. This has become an annual habit with the County Commission, which withdrew another $4 million worth of savings this budget season.

The city not only avoided such a risk to its long-term financial health; with the expected $600,000 in annual red-light camera proceeds, it will actually be adding to its reserves.

The council won't decide how to spend this money until later, but some of the red-light money will definitely go into infrastructure. Maybe it offends you that any government is building savings in these bad times. But considering the city's crumbling roads and sidewalks, can you really say it's not needed?

Meanwhile, in the county, the political fallout has been toxic.

The commissioner who took the most responsible approach to the budget, who led the move to adopt the rollback rate, was John Druzbick. He paid for this with a loss in the Republican primary to tea partier Jason Sager.

On the other hand, Commissioner Jim Adkins, one of two commissioners to take a mindless stand against the rollback, was rewarded with an easy victory over a well-spoken, well-informed (though late arriving) candidate, James Lodato.

What about in the city?

Other than continued grumbling about the red-light cameras, there doesn't seem to be much pressure at all. Every council member, at least after a certain amount of discussion, seemed to accept that somehow, some way, the city had to fill its revenue gap.

Why?

Partly because of Brooksville's traditional apathy. A decade ago, when the council was rolling over to developers, it was a shame that nobody showed up to speak for the city's character and environment. But not having the Don't Tread on Me crowd show up to protest paying its fair share gave the council enough breathing room to make some semi-responsible decisions.

Leadership is part of it, too.

At the start of the budget season, City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha wrote a long memo about the 28 percent drop in city property values since 2006, the plunging revenues, the declining rolls of city employees.

Considering how regularly Hernando County administrators are disposed of, I don't expect any of them to be making forceful arguments for increasing revenue. Not anytime soon.

So, that leaves more control in the hands of the likes of Adkins and commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.

True, both of them did, in the end, vote for the final budget. But looking ahead to next year, Dukes made a point of asking how much homeowners would have to pay to raise $10 million more, an amount that would safely bridge the gap in the next budget the responsible way — without dipping into reserves. The way I calculate it, this comes out to about $76 for the average homeowner. Dukes made it sound like an unbearable burden.

It's enough to give you a fit.

Follow Dan DeWitt at Twitter.com@dandewittimes. And look for his Quick Hits column every Monday at tampabay.com.

Hernando County could learn from Brooksville's refusal to touch reserve funds 09/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 4:36pm]

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