In an era of less, cuts to budget must be fair

The billboard greets northbound motorists at Broad Street and Lake Lindsey Road. It is the typical pitch from a familiar political party.

Less Taxes. More Freedom.

Four miles away in the modest community building that is the Withlacoochee Bicentennial Hall, the message from Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton carries no partisan tint, but a healthy dose of government reality.

Less taxes. Less services.

Government offices may close one day a month in a regularly scheduled furlough to trim payroll. Some library branches and parks could shut down for up to two or three years. There will be fewer county employees, and forget about spending the accumulated park impact fees, because there is no money to operate and maintain new recreational sites.

These are the realities of reduced tax collections amid a recession that has the county searching for ways to fill a nearly $10 million gap in the budget year beginning Oct. 1, the first of three such constrained spending cycles. Spending reserves at a pace of $3 million a year for each of the next three years and cutting costs are the only options under discussion. A tax increase?

''The likelihood of that is zilch,'' Hamilton tells the audience.

The message is ugly, but at least the setting is pretty. Hamilton shares this information in the rural hamlet of Istachatta in the first of a series of town hall meetings on the upcoming county budget. The location, if nothing else, signals an acknowledgement of the community's pastoral beauty and its agricultural interests that are unchanged — so far — by housing booms and busts, big-box stores or other urban concerns. The four corners include a trailer doubling as the U.S. Postal Service branch, a closed general store/coffee shop, the Baptist Church and the county-owned Bicentennial Hall and library annex that is equipped with a swing set, shuffleboard courts and an outdoor basketball hoop.

Besides, it's voting precinct No. 1, so why not start there?

The library is open just one afternoon a week, and on this day its patrons tell Hamilton to leave it alone. Not that there are a lot of them. Nine residents, one for each of the county staffers on hand, attend the nearly two-hour meeting. A county commissioner and a couple of journalists sit in, too.

Doris Lewis of Nobleton is typical. She carries a copy of The Ghost, a Robert Harris novel that she will to return after the meeting during her weekly visit to the library. She likes the parks, too, but is hard-pressed to identify another county service she uses.

These are people who have no use for THE Bus transit service and aren't familiar with the ongoing widening of County Line Road in western Hernando because, let's face it, Citrus and Sumter counties are a whole lot closer. If a continued mass transit service is a key to future federal funding for other transportation projects, then someone suggests — with a touch of sarcasm — that the county consider running a bus through the eastern side of Hernando, too.

They also aren't wild about the county subsidizing the operation of the cannery for just a little over 100 families paying $10 each annually.

"Is that fair?'' asks Celsa Terry.

It is a question that will be repeated a lot over the next three months as the budget moves through adoption.

There is disagreement over the idea of shutting down the local government one day a month to achieve a 5 percent across-the-board (excluding public safety) reduction in personnel costs.

One person thinks it is a fine idea and notes how the people have grown accustomed to the shorter hours offered by library branches. Another disagrees, saying the public needs access to its government and shouldn't have to worry about finding the government center locked on the one day people may be free to conduct business with their local government. It is the only difference of opinion voiced during the meeting. Nobody advocates layoffs, but they do wonder if county commissioners would take a pay cut as well.

Pay cuts for five elected commissioners and reimbursement for their expenses are symbolic measures that won't solve the real problem.

The focus, Hamilton says, must remain on numbers with a lot more zeros on the end.

In an era of less, cuts to budget must be fair 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 10:11am]

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