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Tight budget means few detours for county

The initial image on the screen showed a quiet, two-lane road without a vehicle in sight. The solid yellow stripes stretched away from the viewer amid a canopy of shade trees filtering the sunlight.

It said, to me, anyway: Quiet, unspoiled, maybe even slow-moving.

Unfortunately, it was the last pretty picture of the day.

The rural route was the scene-setter for the Thursday morning orientation session for two newly elected Hernando County commissioners, John Druzbick and James E. Adkins. They will assume office in two days. County Administrator David Hamilton used the picture to symbolize the road ahead.

Probably too smooth and straight to be an accurate representation. More likely, the road ahead will be filled with its share of bumps and twists and turns that accompany most any political entity, particularly one with a new voting majority at the helm.

Case in point: There is still $2-million worth of spending reductions or one-time revenue needed to balance the general fund spending plan for 2009. Meanwhile, the Property Appraiser's Office shared the bleak, but certainly not unexpected news that property values continue their dissent. Average sales price for a single-family house was $164,071 this year, down from a peak of more than $213,000 just two years ago. Ditto commercial properties, though their sale prices peaked a year later at just more than $874,000. In 2008, the average sale price dropped to less than $708,000. That is a 19 percent decline in a single year.

The county's general revenue is hovering at the same place it was four years ago and the number of government employees controlled by the Board of County Commissioners is down to 933 from 1,012 a year ago, an 8 percent reduction.

So the guys elected on a platform of reduced spending and increased efficiency sat in a room with two other commissioners, county department heads, gadflies, political activists and journalists and listened to details of what everyone already knew: The post-Amendment 1 world limits new initiatives and old spending habits

Zero-based budgeting? Already being done. Performance standards? Started three years ago.

It sounded like a seminar for Government Gone Mild.

Between them, Druzbick and Adkins asked about fuel purchases, sharing facilities with the Hernando School District, volunteers, grant-writing, industrial development at the airport, economic recruiting, the size of the tourist tax, cost-benefits of chip-sealing roads and the number of lime rock roads to be improved annually.

No unforeseen revelations. It mirrored their campaign themes of questioning spending and propping up job recruitment.

After three hours of two dozen departments spelling out budgets, employees, responsibilities, services offered and costs charged to other agencies, Hamilton flashed one more sobering slide. The state revenue projections continue a downward spiral with another billion-dollar shortfall in tax collections expected to be announced this week.

That is the kind of news that can mean delayed state transportation projects, reduced revenue sharing to county and municipal governments, or cuts in education and human services that will strain local resources.

"Money is the litmus that allows us to serve the public,'' Hamilton said at the outset of the morning as an introduction to the county's finances. Later, the interim director of emergency management, Cecilia O. Patella, succinctly summarized what lies ahead for nearly everyone in the room. The emerging issue, she said, is doing more with less.

Perhaps. But considering the changes already — shorter operating hours for the libraries; the same for THE Bus transit system; an unsuccessful attempt to assess user fees for sports fields — it is just as likely there will come a point when the alternative is realized. Everyone will be doing less with less.

The road ahead? Look again. Accoutrements are absent. No lights, sidewalks, street signs or roadside benches.

The road ahead is straight and narrow.

Tight budget means few detours for county 11/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2008 7:36pm]
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