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Pasco County Commission hit with harsh reality of 2011 budget cuts

If they were diners, you'd say their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Perusing the menu, they wanted to order a bit of everything. Too bad its clear now they don't have money to cover the tab.

The menu in this case is the county's strategic plan. Adopted by the commission less than a year ago, it is outdated already, done in by ambition, not accomplishment.

Three of the six so-called strategic challenges — economic development, financial sustainability and value-added customer service — are in conflict as the commission begins working on a 2011 budget. The county simply cannot afford to keep all services afloat, buoy industrial recruitment and set aside satisfactory reserves.

"That's why they call them challenges,'' deadpanned Commissioner Michael Cox.

The greatest challenge is moving from an exercise based on theory, visioning and goal-setting to the more significant exertion associated with putting dollar figures next to those priorities.

"It's become an exercise in futility,'' said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

Indeed. Surely, commissioners didn't intend "value-added'' to translate to ''eliminate,'' but that is the prospect for some services as the county weighs what it can afford to do for its residents and taxpayers. The county is anticipating a budget shortfall of roughly $13 million after another double-digit drop in the value of the property tax rolls.

Under some scenarios kicked around at a budget workshop last week, the departments staring at cuts of up to 30 percent are Veterans Services, some Cooperative Extension offerings, park maintenance, recreation programs for children and adults and some library functions, among others. Those ranked in the bottom quarter of county services, according to how they fit into the strategic plan.

It's a familiar scenario. Veterans and agricultural enthusiasts fought deeper cuts last year while the commission agreed to cut library operating hours and park maintenance.

County Administrator John Gallagher told the board that some lower-tiered services might not be able to function with such severe spending limits. Instead, he said, the county might have to eliminate some entirely.

"I don't want to see that stuff go away,'' Hildebrand said later. "Are people going to get the same amount of money as last year? That's not doable, but I don't want to see them eliminated out of the fold entirely either.''

Gallagher outlined other alternatives. The commission could tap a $5 million reserve (financial sustainability) or raid a $2 million incentive fund (economic development) to help balance the books.

In interviews afterward, commissioners differed on an appropriate strategy to bagging their strategic challenges. Hildebrand didn't want to touch a $5 million reserve, saying it was neither good business nor good planning. Cox said the county might have no alternative, but he wanted to protect the economic incentive fund. Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested tapping the incentive account to help cover the ongoing $430,000 appropriation to the Economic Development Council.

Keep in mind that these are preliminary talks. You also have to account for each commissioner's sacred cow. Those are social services and outside agency funding for Hildebrand, Animal Services for Cox, economic development for Mariano, libraries for Commissioner Pat Mulieri and agricultural services for Commissioner Ted Schrader.

Still to come are tabulated results of citizen surveys, finalized property tax rolls, budget proposals from constitutional officers and then Gallagher's budget plan to the commission in mid-July. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

One other thing. The strategic plan is supposed to be updated each November.

"Are we going to meet them (goals) all? Obviously we won't,'' said Cox. "But, if we don't try, we never will.''

True enough. So maybe there needs to be an asterisk on the strategic plan.

"Everything,'' said Hildebrand, "comes with a price tag.''

Pasco County Commission hit with harsh reality of 2011 budget cuts 05/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 11:48am]
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