Thursday, January 18, 2018
Opinion

Hernando County leaders need to rebuild public trust

The political forecast and a time-management strategy came from the commission dais: Don't waste your time.

Prognosticator Jeff Stabins offered the sentiment five days ago amid the Hernando County Commission's first public session to assemble the county budget for the next fiscal year. The commission is getting an early start because the general fund is looking at a $2.5 million shortfall between current spending and next year's projected property tax revenues.

It doesn't seem like an insurmountable amount amid a $76 million budget, but only $8.5 million of general county spending is under the commission's control. Most of the rest goes for public safety, debt, is tied to grants or finances the constitutional officers.

So, the commissioners can cut 29 percent of what remains of their existing programs and employees, they can squeeze the constitutional officers for help, or they can look for more money.

Tuesday morning, the staff asked about revenue and received these responses:

A higher property tax? Silence.

User fees? Nothing more to gain.

Gasoline tax? Why would you go there? We can move on.

A voter-approved sales tax?

"All of our referenda tax issues are dead on arrival and that we will not be putting any on the ballot,'' declared Stabins, pointing to a failed trash referendum in 2010.

"It shows the lack of (trust) in the county and in the state right now and in government in general. It's a fact. You can't ignore it. To try to put a referendum on the ballot that is doomed to fail is arrogant.''

Nobody disputed Stabins' logic. At least not publicly because there is plenty of evidence to substantiate his thinking.

In 2010, two of every three Hernando voters rejected the non-binding trash referendum intended to help guide the county toward a less-expensive, once-a-week garbage collection and recycling system. Likewise, Spring Hill voters twice balked at giving the fire commissioners the authority to levy a property tax to fund an independent fire department.

It's not a recent phenomenon. The distrust stretches to 2004 when Hernando voters rejected a half-cent sales tax for county infrastructure. This vote, however, was a distinct repudiation of county government spending. Simultaneous to that referendum, the same Hernando voters approved a half-cent sales tax for school construction. Meanwhile, just across the border in Pasco, voters, on that same Election Day in 2004, authorized a penny sales tax to be divided among the schools, county and six municipalities.

There might be a distrust of government, but there is a history of distrusting Hernando County government more than others. It should be noted that 2004 predates the current commissioners and many of the administrative staffers.

But here's the problem: Stabins' prediction fails to acknowledge Hernando commissioners already approved putting two ballot questions to voters in 2012.

Voters will be asked if they want to extend, by two years, the property tax that finances environmental land preservation. And, in a second question, voters will be asked if they want to continue paying for mosquito control through a recently established taxing district.

Despite public perceptions to the contrary (including from Stabins) the two ballot questions are not revenue neutral. If voters agree, mosquito control will be a new, voter-authorized, but relatively small tax rate (no more than 10 cents per $1,000 of property value) to raise roughly $600,000 a year.

"I'm afraid those other referendum are going to fail then,'' Stabins said later. "It's just a tough time. The public is having a tough time and they're very distrustful of government, of the media, of just about all institutions.''

If he's correct, then voter rejection means still more difficult decisions in 2013 as the commission figures out if it can afford to pay for mosquito spraying from its general fund or whether the service must be scaled back or eliminated entirely.

If Stabins is wrong, then voters will have said they are willing to pay a small tax increase for a valuable quality of life service intended to help protect their health, safety and welfare.

Being the skeptic is the easy route. Commissioners can simply lament distrust or they can attempt to defuse it by rebuilding public faith in their own governing abilities.

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