Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Services survey asks the impossible: pick 3

Taking exams isn't part of a regular routine for most adults. There is the annual math test due to the Internal Revenue Service every April 15. And anyone continuing their education must provide proof of proficiency via testing, essays or some similar skill measurement. I think the last time I took an exam that mattered was a 1987 road test for a Florida driver's license to replace the version issued by the state of New York.

Recently, I took the Pasco County online citizens survey for 2013 and felt genuinely stumped by the contents. The survey is 42 questions of mostly standard fare intended to measure citizen engagement, community attributes and public attitudes toward government services as well as to collect basic demographic information from the respondents. You can take it, too. The link to the survey is on the Pasco County home page at pascocountyfl.net. The online survey is available through the end of the month. Printed versions, mailed to 1,200 random households in May, can still be sent in as well.

The county has been using the National Citizen Survey since 2009 to help set its strategic plan and to guide annual budget decisions that have been dominated by falling property values and revenue, service cuts to the public and wage freezes and job reductions to county employees for five years.

As part of the polling, county government officials get to ask a handful of Pasco-specific questions on the mail survey. The contents of those questions led to recent verbal sparring on the commission dais and a promise from Commissioner Jack Mariano to kill a proposed new property tax. (The tax for roads requires unanimous commission approval.) Mariano promised the retribution because he wanted a different question asked, but got shot down by his colleagues.

That political sideshow aside, the perplexing question to me came exactly halfway through the online survey: Question 21.

It asks you to rank the three most important county services to maintain at the current level of funding. The list included 10 departments absent the Sheriff's Office and Fire/Rescue because past surveys have shown public safety to be residents' top priority. In other words, the rest of the departments financed by property taxes get to battle it out.

The challenge is to select just three. If Pasco truly has ambitions to be a premier county, then consider the debates that should be stirred by Question 21:

Don't human/social services go hand-in-hand with maintaining public transportation? Shouldn't feeding the elderly through Meals on Wheels be a priority for any community? How do you separate parks/recreation from the public libraries? Is Animals Services more imperative than Veterans Services? How can you cut Code Enforcement while trying to stimulate an ambitious redevelopment of west Pasco? Likewise, why shortchange the Cooperative Extension if agriculture contributes $111 million in annual sales to the Pasco economy from 1,200 farms, groves and dairies?

This is the dilemma. Each of these services has its own constituencies that consider status quo funding to be vital. Pick three? It may be easier to announce "quick pick,'' a la the Lottery, when answering this question.

There was one government service on the list of 10 that I didn't include and frankly, it probably shouldn't even be there — road maintenance. I say this because Questions 18 and 19 are verbose inquiries of transportation funding that include a 156-word introduction and nearly 40-word answers.

When you makes it through this bureaucratic novella, you'll be telling the county whether you favor a 5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, a new property tax, or neither to pay for road and right of way maintenance on 3,800 lane miles across the county. (This is the property tax that Mariano already said he would sabotage.)

Nobody would dispute that road maintenance is a key government service to keep the county's network of major roads from falling into disrepair. But, I wonder if home-bound senior citizens, animal lovers, veterans, the poor, farmers, bus riders, library patrons, neighborhood associations, park-users and athletes think road maintenance is more important than the services upon which they rely.

Picking three desirable county services to spare and designating seven more for potential budget cuts? There is no correct answer to Question 21.

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