Budget cuts will push Florida voters past their limits

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 Counties.

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.

Until then, however, the message of the recent past elections continues to resonate. Take Hernando County, for example. Citizens rejected a sales tax increase for the county, but approved one for schools in 2004; mandated Amendment 1 property tax exemptions in January 2008 and, most recently, dumped two incumbent commissioners 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.

Unfortunately, commissioners haven't demonstrated an ability to hear any other message, even as their staff warns of a looming budget deficit of more than $4 million and the dangers of tapping reserves to balance the bottom line.

Halve the impact fees? Sure.

A gasoline tax increase? The commission killed that discussion immediately last year and appears poised to do likewise in 2010.

But, commissioners shouldn't rely on that as their exclusive position.

Consider:

The same year they turned out two incumbent commissioners, Spring Hill voters granted authority to the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District to levy taxes without county commission oversight. The we-should-have-seen-this-coming follow-up was an ill-fated request to start assessing a tangible tax on Spring Hill businesses.

Similarly, commissioners bowed to political pressure from a small, but boisterous 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 anti-tax 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 roll back.)

Few others chose that route. Falling property values meant a $7.3 million, or 9.3 percent, tax cut this year in Hernando County because commissioners would not entertain a rate increase. They've made that clear again for the 2010-2011 budget as well. 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.

Conversely, Pasco, Hernando's neighbor to the south, raised its property tax rate to near the roll-back 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 and reduced operating hours at library branches.

Across the state, more of the same tough budget decisions are expected in the coming months. Falling property values project to 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.''

Budget cuts will push Florida voters past their limits 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 9:49am]

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