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Hernando County can't afford to waive housing impact fees

David Hamilton's first job was in the family jewelry store. He hasn't forgotten the lessons of retailing.

"If there's nobody at the counter then you go and clean the toilets or stock the shelves,'' said Hamilton.

It is the philosophy he is sharing at the government center. Fewer managers, but more managing. If there is a lull, turn your attention to another task.

It is the kind of bureaucratic work ethic that isn't likely to gain notice from the tax-paying public until it translates into tangible savings. Don't expect too much excitement over staffers leaving, duties merging and pay cuts accompanying a new flow chart. Fill the pot holes, keep the parks open, and don't shut down the cannery and people will be pleased.

It's another parallel between governing and retailing.

"The customer is always right — even though you grit your teeth sometimes — because they pay the bills,'' said Hamilton, county administrator for the past 17 months. Incidentally, that puts him near a 21st century longevity record for county government. Hernando went through 10 county administrators — including interims — in the decade before Hamilton's arrival from Minnesota.

But as the county tweaks its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, a spending plan that carries no property tax rate increase and a multimillion-dollar spending cut — Hamilton already is thinking about 2011 and what the county will have to consider next year to finance its operations.

New fees. Special taxing districts. Higher taxes.

Forget retailing techniques. This will be a hard sell, no matter what. And, it will be exacerbated by a political climate colored by the 2010 commission election campaigns. Still it is a conversation the commission needs to have, Hamilton said, perhaps as early as January as it considers a broader discussion of government services.

At least these won't be cold calls. Commissioners already panned the idea of a separate tax for law enforcement and proposed park athletic fees died in 2008.

But many of the budget decisions over the past year have been relatively easy, politically speaking. Commissioners cut library hours, but maintained operations with grant funding. A private sector donation allowed them to delay a decision on the cannery for a year. Trimming mass transit operations after raising the fares brought squawks from some corners, but not many protests.

Far-reaching discussions need to occur so commissioners can decide if they will lead or duck. Raiding reserve accounts to help the bottom line and to stem off a utility rate increase isn't too complicated. Balancing competing interests to determine what levels of services are appropriate for Hernando County and figuring out how to pay for them requires a more deliberative process.

Effective industrial recruiting is not free. Public safety is not cheap. Mass transit needs subsidies. Maintaining parks and keeping the lights on at the library branches requires personnel and utility costs.

"There comes a point in time when you can't do everything with less money,'' said Hamilton.

Meanwhile, a few days after our interview, the private sector proposed another builders' relief act, the third time in the past year commissioners are being asked to cut or suspend impact fees intended to pay for infrastructure.

In the past and again during an interview last week, Hamilton talked of the disconnect between county government and the public over "how we're running the place for the price that we're paying.'' Think of the angry tax revolt of 2007 and the election defeat of two incumbent commissioners in 2008 and you get the idea.

But to me the suggestion of waiving impact fees for new-home construction demonstrates a disconnect of another sort. There is still an unwillingness in some quarters to pay a fair share for essential government services.

I worked in retailing, too, and the customer isn't right on this one.

Hernando County can't afford to waive housing impact fees 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 12:07pm]

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