Now that Pasco County has completed an extensive, countywide outreach effort that included hundreds of residents, business owners and county employees, a few common themes have emerged.
We learned our citizens, no matter where they live or what they do for a living, are passionate about what they expect from local government and how they want their tax dollars spent. Whatever their primary interest or concern — be it the condition of soccer fields or the fees we charge for a building permit — Pasco residents expect fast, efficient and courteous service from their county government. These are the same things we strive for every day and our recent citizen survey showed that most people who interact with county employees describe their experience as positive.
What also has become clear to us is that we can do a better job of educating our citizens about what we do, how we do it and — perhaps most importantly — how their tax dollars are spent. Among residents, businesses and even our own employees, there are many misconceptions about county services, how they are funded and how important decisions are made.
Through our LEAP (Lean, Efficient, Accountable Pasco) initiative and overall strategic planning process, we are attempting to correct that and do a better job of communicating with citizens. If you have any questions or comments about the information below, please use the customer comment card on our Web site, www.pascocountyfl.net, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are the most frequently asked questions and comments we hear from citizens and employees about the county budget and possible cuts to services or jobs:
Why have my taxes gone up every year? Don't homeowners deserve a break from big government?
For the past eight years, the Board of County Commissioners has actually reduced or maintained the general fund millage. For most citizens, the county portion of their property tax bill was lower in 2008 than it was in 1995 and significantly lower than in 2003.
What about this year? Are you going to raise my taxes when everything else is going up too?
The county is weighing all options to balance this year's budget and make up for a $31.7 million shortfall in property taxes and other revenues from the state. This could include some cuts to service, a reduction in personnel, new fees, an increase in the millage or a combination of all of these. No decisions have been made on any of these alternatives. The proposed budget will be presented to the Board of County Commissioners in July. The public will have an opportunity to comment at budget hearings during the summer and the final budget will be adopted in September.
Why doesn't county government cut the fat?
Last year, due to the drop in property tax revenue, Pasco County made substantial cuts to its budget, nearly $14 million worth. County departments this year have been instructed to cut another 15 percent from their budgets, due to the continued economic decline and drop in revenue.
What about all those high-paid administrative positions?
It is a common misconception that Pasco County employs a large number of highly paid administrators. Of the county's 2,058 employees, only 3.6 percent are managers, which is rather low compared to other similar-sized counties. The rest of our employees are professional, paraprofessional, clerical, skilled craft or maintenance workers who carry out the day-to-day business of county government.
It seems like the county is continuing with many expensive capital projects. Why can't these be put on hold and the money used to maintain public services like libraries and parks?
The county has 63 special purpose funds that must be used for particular kinds of projects. These dollars cannot be diverted to offset other programs or services, including parks and libraries. Canceling projects from these special purpose funds would not help reduce the county's overall budget shortfall.
Why is the county still hiring if the budget is so tight this year?
The county has had a hiring freeze for the last couple of years. Only positions deemed essential to maintaining services are being filled. The county eliminated 22 positions in May 2008 and 29 positions in January 2009. A majority of those workers were placed in other vacant positions.
If money is so tight, why is the county still providing take-home vehicles as perks to managers?
No employee receives a take-home vehicle as a perk. The only take-home vehicles are assigned to supervisors with after-hour responsibilities. And, no employee under the county administrator is provided with a county cell phone. Employees also are not reimbursed for county calls made on their personal cell phones.
What is the county doing with the information from citizen surveys and focus groups?
County administration and the Board of County Commissioners are reviewing all of the citizen feedback and using it to make decisions about the current budget and the county's plans for the future. This information will play an important role in the development of the county's strategic plan for the next three to five years.
What about all the environmentally sensitive land the county has been buying? Is that necessary in these tough economic times?
The Environmental Lands Acquisition Management Program (ELAMP) is funded entirely by the Penny for Pasco sales tax that was approved by voters in 2004 specifically for this purpose. These funds are restricted and cannot be used for any other purpose.
If the county is in such a budget crunch, why are you still spending money to promote tourism?
The county tourism office and all tourism-related promotions are funded by a 2 percent bed tax on hotel and motel stays. By law, tourist tax funds can only be used for tourist-related activities. No property tax dollars are used for tourism.
Whose fault is it that the county is in such dire straits?
No one on county staff messed up the budget. The decline in the housing market and effects of the voter-approved Amendment 1 have cost the county a combined total of $54 million in property taxes over two years.
John Gallagher is Pasco County administrator.