A dry recitation on a drizzly afternoon translates to one thing:
"Kind of depressing, I'm sorry.''
The words are from County Administrator David Hamilton. The audience is sparse — a dozen residents, two county staffers, a journalist and a blogger. The topic is the county budget, but the bingo game next door sounds a lot more fun.
We are inside VFW Post 10209 in Spring Hill a day after voters affirmed the status quo in Hernando County. They re-elected two incumbent school board members and a third incumbent was the top vote-getter in a three-person race and headed for a November runoff. Diane Rowden, disposed from the county commission just two years ago, is the Democratic nominee for a state House seat. The only county commission race saw a third-time candidate win the Republican nomination over two first-time hopefuls. So much for an electorate demanding change. Even favorite son Bill McCollum carried Hernando, but not the state of Florida, and he lost the GOP gubernatorial nomination to millionaire outsider Rick Scott.
Scott's campaign salutation is "Let's get to work.'' People like Hamilton should correctly wonder, "What do you think we've been doing?"
There is no standing still in Hernando County government. A number of department managers were expected to receive pink slips Thursday under a reorganization plan that is intended to cut yet another $150,000 in payroll.
People will pay more to use the boat ramps and county parks, but the property tax rate will not go up. The mass transit system is alive for at least one more year. The sheriff is about to take over operations at what had been a privately run jail and the county purchasing chores are now handled by the clerk of the circuit court.
At last count, it looked like a $1.5 million budget deficit for Hernando, but Hamilton tells the group Wednesday he is confident he will present a balanced spending plan to the commission. Who would have thought that in April, when the county projected an $8.2 million shortfall?
Still, any sense of well-being will be short-lived. The county remains on a crash course with insolvency if the government doesn't wean itself from spending its reserves. And there is still the projected deficit of up to $7 million for the 2011-12 budget year that is 13 months away.
Yes, depressing might be an understatement.
But the observers in this town hall meeting offer their own ideas. Cut spending on consultants. Re-evaluate the pay scale. (That's being done.) Make sure liens are attached to foreclosed homes to recoup costs of inmates mowing lawns at neglected properties. Ask the state for permission to temporarily spend impact fee money for ongoing operating expenses.
That's not as easy as it sounds. Impact fees are one-time charges on new construction to pay for the demand on services attributed to growth. The park impact fee, for instance, is intended to pay for new or expanded parks, not to pay the salaries of the guys mowing the ball fields.
Sure, it can be aggravating that $2 million sits in a park impact fee account while residents now will be asked to pay $50 a year to launch their boats or $1 every time they visit the dog park. But using capital dollars for recurring expenses is a dangerous precedent and is akin to simply dipping into yet another reserve account to balance the ledger. Besides, it is illegal. Failing to use impact fees for their designated purpose invites a likely (and probably successful) legal challenge from the building community.
The session brings no protests over services being cut or fees being assessed. Three consecutive years of falling property values and reduced revenue have deadened the objections.
There is no bolt of lightning, Hamilton tells the onlookers, just incremental changes in the way the county does business.
One of those incremental changes?
"We're paying attention now,'' said Hamilton.
You wonder if the voters are doing likewise.