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In tight budget year, Hernando should think small

Think small.

It could be the Hernando County motto for 2010.

Gathered in a goal-setting session last week, Hernando commissioners focused their attention on topics for the coming year and three of the top eight concerns dealt with county workers: morale, safety and training.

Clearly, human resources are vital to and a top strength of any organization. Well-trained workers and those promoted to supervisory roles increase productivity and reduce the potential for liability. They deserve a safe work environment. But don't expect morale to improve significantly until the county has the ability not just to preserve jobs, but to financially reward performance.

That brings us to the commission's top concern so accurately characterized by Commissioner David Russell as the 600-pound gorilla: the county budget. It is forecast at a $4.4 million deficit for next year even with $3 million added to the revenue ledger from reserve accounts.

It's the reason for the focus on remaining initiatives: consolidated services, streamlined permitting and new business development. Greater government efficiency and an expanded tax base will be required to dig Hernando out of the budget doldrums brought on by a crashing real estate market, reduced property values, increased tax exemptions and recession-driven declines in sales and other tax receipts.

Okay, so maybe you have to think small when a 600-pound gorilla is squashing any big thinking.

A separate tax to pay for existing services appears dead even though County Administrator David Hamilton pointed out that $43 million, or 39 percent of the county's general fund, is tied to the Sheriff's Office and the jail.

"We obviously have a problem," agreed Russell. "The last thing in the world we need to be considering is increased revenue through increased taxes."

Well, it is an election year, you know.

But what about a tax to pay for new services? It is a suggestion from former County Commissioner Len Tria. He thinks the county should install central water and sewer in Royal Highlands and authorize a new municipal taxing district to pay for it.

Frankly, it is a big, specific idea and shouldn't be dismissed as unworkable or too risky politically. It's not even new. Tria made the same suggestion during the 2005 update to the comprehensive land use plan.

He told commissioners then, "You wouldn't let a developer do what you're allowing to be done — develop units on dirt roads with no water and no sewer."

His idea is to invest in infrastructure, business development and environmental protection and it is worthy of commission consideration as a goal for the not-too-distant future after tackling the smallness of 2010.

Nobody mentioned a timely byproduct. But, Tria's pitch, if successful, diminishes an argument from the backers of the proposed Quarry Preserve in northern Hernando. They stated their massive development is necessary — despite staff concerns of sprawl — because much of the rest of the residential land in the county is too inferior to bother counting in Hernando's housing inventory.

Four days before commissioners heard that argument from Quarry Preserve, Tria urged commissioners to consider the utility improvements for the sprawling Royal Highlands area of northwest Hernando. Doing so, he said, would head off the potential of saltwater intrusion from 14,000 homes sucking 3 million gallons of ground water each day via individual wells. That's not even counting water used for irrigation.

"I think they're looking at a ticking time bomb," Tria said later.

More to the point, an approved water and sewer system could be done in conjunction with paving the area's lime rock road network that now can only be improved on a piecemeal basis as property owners agree to a paving assessment. It would help curb the frequent complaints from residents there who grouse about the dust and feared pulmonary health risks.

Think of Tria's suggestion as a government-encouraged community development district, the financing tool now used commonly to pay for up-front infrastructure costs in a new subdivision. It would increase the value of property in Royal Highlands, improve the quality of life of existing residents and simultaneously focus new housing in an area already approved and platted for residential growth.

Encouraging growth in a suitable location. That shouldn't be such a big idea.

In tight budget year, Hernando should think small 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 10:43am]
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