If a room could be miscast as the temporary Hernando Commission chambers, this was it: the Praise Center.
Glorifying government was not the topic of this town hall meeting Monday afternoon in the annex of the Spring Lake United Methodist Church. There was no repenting nor tithing. Just sermonizing from pro-gun, anti-tax, less-government advocates.
Four commissioners, two constitutional officers, 10 county department heads, and County Administrator Len Sossamon listened to comments from the sparse gathering of perhaps 30 citizens. Empty seats outnumbered the occupied chairs for the session that ended an hour earlier than scheduled. Many of the critiques, often based on hearsay or personal pet peeves, were familiar to anyone who has listened to the voice of the public at the weekly commission meetings.
A few comments, however, were in direct conflict. One speaker wanted less government regulation. Another wanted to know why county government doesn't police painting contractors. One called for reducing the tax burden. Another said the county needs to increase taxes to maintain services. Law enforcement spending is too high, said one. Officers must spend more time enforcing littering laws, said another.
It's why balancing a government budget in lean times can be so demanding. Every service has a constituency. Balancing the books was the supposed point of the series of town hall meetings as commissioners confront a budget shortfall expected to be roughly $10 million come Oct. 1.
Plugging that gap? Well, certainly the favored technique of raiding reserve accounts is no longer the answer. During the meeting, unsuccessful commission candidates from the November election recycled their campaign platforms calling for greater investment in county government and a need to supplement parks, libraries and law enforcement budgets with nontraditional funding sources like corporate sponsorships and taxing Internet cafes.
The true insight came from the less familiar faces.
John S. Wilson, 61, an art director and corporate image consultant, moved to Hernando Beach in 2005 after previously living in Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties.
"We need to improve the quality of our image by maybe bringing it up to this century,'' he told the audience.
In an interview afterward, Wilson expanded on the county's virtues.
"I think it's the best real estate buy in the entire country. It's a great opportunity for organized and conscientious growth and it's a great place for business to come in.''
The county should capitalize on its natural beauty and not chase growth for the sake of growing. Pursue quality, not quantity, he suggested.
It is a valid point that has received little consideration for the past five years as commissioners, almost in desperation, grabbed at anything perceived as pro-business. They waived impact fees, adopted employment incentives that reward modest-wage jobs, and approved future urban sprawl — showing a disdain for long-term planning in favor of hoped-for short-term fixes.
Others at the town hall meeting worried about still another short-sighted idea — closing library branches. They are used by young and old alike, but are particularly valuable for children's learning, supporters said.
Though no formal plan to shutter libraries has been revealed, it's a common public concern because of past commission reluctance to raise the property tax rate; expiring state library grants; depleted reserve accounts; and previous cuts to parks and libraries.
Therein lies yet another paradox. The county talks mightily of bolstered economic development yet is resistant to investing in the quality of life attributes that would help make Hernando County a favored place to live and work. And, even routine government functions like mosquito spraying and animal services have been botched the past couple of years because those departments got shortchanged during past budget deliberations.
For those who didn't attend, the opportunity for public input is available via a digital town hall survey at www.co.hernando.fl.us, the Web page of Hernando County government. The 13-question survey asks participants to rank the delivery of government services, detail whether further cuts or additional revenue are more acceptable, and to consider past and future changes in Hernando's quality of life.
Near the conclusion of the town hall meeting, one woman proposed her own way to improve the long-term quality of life in Hernando County.
"Do you have an opening in the planning department,'' she wondered, "for Mr. Wilson?''