Now is not the time to be shy. Hernando County government administrators want to hear from citizens about suggested cost-cutting measures. The public gets its chance at a series of town hall meetings in advance of the release of a proposed county budget that is seeking to close an $11 million hole.
The initial session is 2 p.m. today at Withlacoochee Bicentennial Hall, 16257 Lingle Road, Istachatta. Six more meetings are scheduled around the county with the finale in the evening of July 1 at the Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville.
Typically, commissioners and staff members hear from a handful of gadflies at each commission meeting with pet peeves ranging from the size of the legal staff to unspecified criticism of county government spending. Likewise, the special interests tend to turn out in healthy numbers. Already, supporters of Sheriff Richard Nugent are lobbying for a greater share of the budget. But the aim of the town hall meetings is to expand participation in order to gain a broader viewpoint on county services and to find out exactly what the tax-paying public might accept.
Some ideas have already been suggested and rejected — privatizing libraries, for example — and a year ago commissioners balked at charging fees for sports leagues using county parks. Raising the gasoline tax died a quick death as well, but the commission did halve its fixed-transit service, THE Bus. Dipping into the reserves account is about the only suggestion that has been met with enthusiasm, but that is a one-time budgeting device that simply delays difficult choices if the economy does not rebound.
Falling property values, voter-approved property tax exemptions, recession-driven reductions in sales and gasoline tax receipts and fewer state revenue-sharing dollars mean substantial cuts loom.
Among the tasks ahead:
• Balancing concerns of people who put up produce at the cannery against spending $49,000 for a facility that recoups less than $1,200 from its $10-per-family membership fee.
• Attempting to negotiate shorter workweeks for county employees.
• Paring a Hernando sheriff's budget request that held the line on spending even though Nugent earlier laid out a plan calling for losing 53 officers as part of a more than $4 million cut requested by the county administration.
If residents want to pay a higher tax bill to ensure status quo law enforcement, if they're willing to pay extra to keep the cannery operating, now is the time to speak up before the county budget proposal is finished. Waiting until the September public hearings prior to the start of the Oct. 1 budget year won't be fruitful. That robs citizens of an opportunity to have greater influence over next year's spending.
The county wants to hear from the public. It would be a mistake not to offer up an earful.