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As Pasco budget cuts get deeper, objections get louder

The voters will tell us when they've had enough.

That is the wisdom of Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, the immediate past president of the Florida Association of Counties, who visited recently with the Times editorial board.

Voters will tell their elected officials when they've closed enough libraries, shuttered enough fire stations, locked up enough police substations or taken enough pleasure out of going to the park. That hasn't happened in Pasco County. At least not yet.

In 2009, Pasco raised its property tax rate to near the rollback level — a 19 percent increase — and received remarkably little public criticism. Even with that revenue, however, the Pasco commission's approved budget meant layoffs, cuts to the fire department, closing two swimming pools, less maintenance at the parks and reduced operating hours at library branches. Still, commissioners were able to appease — at least partly — veterans, 4-H enthusiasts, and social service agencies that faced deeper cuts under the initial budget proposals.

"We held services fairly harmless," said Commissioner Michael Cox, who faces re-election this year. "Unfortunately, I don't think that's going to be the case this cycle."

Indeed. Five days ago, commissioners learned they could be staring at a $14.6 million reduction to the general fund because of falling property values. Increasing the property tax rate a second consecutive year will be hard to swallow politically. Meanwhile, spending priorities are supposed to be determined not by protecting individual commissioners' sacred cows, but by the ongoing exercise of ranking services according to importance.

So, will voters push back if their favored cause is at the bottom of the list? Recent history tells us the electorate is fickle and the idiosyncrasies can vary by political jurisdiction.

In Pasco, voters approved a sales tax increase in 2004, mandated Amendment 1 property tax exemptions in January 2008 and returned to office three incumbent commissioners. In other words, a majority of the voters trusted the sales tax would be administered appropriately, bought into the unkept promises of Amendment 1 being a miracle cure for the ailing real estate industry, and re-elected the financial stewards who approved declining general fund tax rates for much of the last decade.

Just one county to the north, however, Hernando voters rejected half of its sales tax proposal earmarked for county government in 2004 and sent two incumbent commissioners packing in 2008 amid government-gone-wild rhetoric. Certainly, you would be politically tone deaf not to hear the message that Hernando voters believe their county government taxes are too high or spent inappropriately.

Curiously, though, commissioners there bowed to political pressure from a persistent constituency when they agreed to keep open the cannery in lieu of a projected $40,000 savings. That is the paradox. Everyone complains about their tax bill until a service near and dear to their hearts is slated for the chopping block.

Alachua Commissioner Rodney J. Long, president of the Florida Association of Counties, can empathize. Amid the prolonged recession and antitax climate, Alachua voters approved a new property tax for schools and a reauthorized a half-cent sales tax for environmental land. Despite that support for public spending, the county now faces the prospect of closing fire stations because it can't afford to staff them full time. (Alachua was one of only six counties in Florida that settled on a property tax rate above the rollback.)

Few others chose that route. Twenty-seven of Florida's 67 counties did not raise their property tax rate in the budget year that began Oct. 1, which translated into a collective tax reduction of more than $1 billion. Across the state, more of the same tough budget decisions are expected in the coming months. Falling property values are projected to mean another $900 million in reduced revenue to Florida's county governments for next budget year.

As if that chore isn't hard enough, Latvala, Long and others from the association of counties fear attempts to balance their budgets will be decimated by the Legislature shifting costs to counties for, among other things, Medicaid nursing home beds, juvenile justice and court infrastructure.

"They just balance their budget on our backs," said Christopher L. Holley, the association's executive director.

So when will the voters say they've had enough? Long thinks it will be soon and offered up a prediction:

"Statewide, we're going to be hearing a cry."

As Pasco budget cuts get deeper, objections get louder 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 1:37pm]
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