People want better services for veterans and more money for elderly nutrition. Public safety is most important. Parks and libraries are a luxury to some, but an imperative quality of life enhancement to others. And, oh yeah, don't even think about changing property tax bills to pay for this stuff.
Pasco County administrators may have come looking for answers, but they left Land O'Lakes three nights ago with the same unanswered question: What is it you want us to cut?
The 21/2 hour community meeting, in which the county unveiled the results of its latest citizen survey, was a prelude to this summer's budget deliberations. The county has lost $37 million from its general fund after three consecutive years of declining property values and it expects equally bleak budgeting for the 2013 fiscal year. Property values could be down another 4 percent which would bring in $5 million less than the current year. Expenses — mostly fuel, utilities and insurance — could be $6 million higher.
"The good times are over,'' County Administrator John Gallagher said. "Help us make choices on how we spend your money.''
Good times? They ended five years ago. In the ensuing years, the county: Shut down swimming pools and community centers, closed its recreation centers on Sundays, limited library hours, raised bus fares, adopted new fees for parks and raised charges for ambulance rides; served 60,000 fewer meals to senior citizens each year; laid off 180 employees and froze salaries at 2007 levels.
Gallagher's plea to two dozen residents, 18 county staffers and a trio of journalists generated some responses typical to the tea party era. One woman said to cut government salaries. Another opined (incorrectly) that rental property tenants escape contributing to government services. One person labeled parks and libraries a luxury.
It brought rebukes from others. Land O' Lakes resident Ray Williams pointed out parks and libraries are necessary to help with industrial recruitment and economic development. Sandy Graves, head of the Heritage Park Foundation that wants to assemble a museum and historical site, correctly noted that parks and libraries provide the fabric of a community.
She has firsthand knowledge. Her father helped build the Land O'Lakes Community Center building in which the meeting was held.
The evening, however, was not a referendum on parks or libraries. Far from it. The two departments already absorbed a combined $8 million worth of budget cuts over the past four years. Rather, the session allowed people, many of them unfamiliar with county government, an opportunity for a community dialogue.
A worker at the Shops at Wiregrass mall wanted to volunteer ideas for both economic development and mass transit. Another man said the visual clutter along U.S. 41 was a detriment to a county that markets itself to tourists as "It's only natural.'' He suggested more green space between the highway and its storefronts. Veterans said they are unhappy with their treatment.
There was near universal acclaim for the benefits of the Penny for Pasco sales tax, but not so much when the topic turned to property taxes. As part of its coming budget, the county is anticipating proposing a tax rate increase of about 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to make up for the falling property values. That still leaves the county wrestling with $6 million worth of higher costs for fuel, utilities and other overhead.
In the recent mail survey, the county asked respondents how it should make up the shortfall. A majority said to establish special tax districts for areas demanding higher services. About one-third said they favored user fees or cutting services. Just 29 percent of the respondents said to raise taxes.
"Most of us are willing to let someone else pay more,'' deadpanned Deputy County Administrator Michelle Baker.
Though dollars and cents dominated the conversations, Gallagher, county administrator here for three decades, pointed to other considerations. Over the past dozen years, the commission pushed aesthetic controls on commercial signs and billboards, protected trees and set landscape and architectural requirements for new construction. It divided the county into five market areas to diversify growth patterns and is poised to realize new jobs and an expanded tax base via the planned relocation of T. Rowe Price to Land O'Lakes and the expansion of Raymond James Financial to Wesley Chapel.
"I think this place is on the verge of being a fabulous community,'' Gallagher told the meeting.
But, nobody volunteered to help finance that fabulousness, either.