Pasco commissioners need a refresher course on the first lesson of fiscal responsibility: Don't spend what you don't have. Last month, in a zeal to trim the proposed property tax rate, commissioners included a $3.5 million allocation from the Pasco Tax Collector's Office, figuring the unspent fees would be available to them since Gov. Rick Scott had yet to name a replacement for the late Mike Olson.
Olson had previously said $1 million might be returned to the county general fund, but he intended to escrow the rest to acquire land for a planned service center in south-central Pasco.
Commissioner Ted Schrader raised the idea of taking all the money, then tried to slow the process down, asking for input from the Tax Collector's Office and a possible special meeting to set a lower tax rate. "Make the (tax rate) cuts,'' answered Commissioner Jack Mariano. A majority agreed.
It was rash, politically convenient and irresponsible budgeting that will lead to spending cuts elsewhere when reality sets in. Padding the revenue side allowed the commission to set its tentative general fund tax rate at 7.3441 mills, a 7 percent increase over the current tax rate, but less than the originally proposed 10 percent jump.
But there are two problems. One, they aimed too high. The Tax Collector's Office is now projecting $3.2 million in unspent fees, of which the county would be entitled to 90 percent, or roughly $2.88 million. And two, whomever becomes the next tax collector also has the ability to file an amended budget with the state Department of Revenue to keep the fees if that person follow's Olson's stated intent.
At a minimum, commissioners must make roughly $620,000 in cuts or further raid reserve accounts to balance their proposed budget. Spending additional reserves is unlikely since commissioners already indicated they will tap saved money to pay for a merged emergency dispatch center and to set up employee health clinics to trim future medical insurance bills. They also face the potential of finding nearly $2 million more depending on the actions of the next tax collector.
It's a big price tag for imprudence. Commissioners's taxing and spending decisions should be based on more concrete information than just wishful thinking.