The recession has forced both public and private employers to shed millions of workers. So it is no surprise that Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean finds more layoffs will be necessary to balance the county budget through 2011. But the spending plan she brought to the table comes nowhere close to meeting the challenges of a fundamentally changed economy. It is a simplistic approach when what the taxpayers, county employees and elected commissioners need is a more sophisticated vision for making local government more effective and efficient.
Bean's proposal, unveiled this month, calls for reducing the 2009-10 operating budget by about $140 million, to $1.6 billion. She would cut 1,070 jobs from the county's 5,000-member workforce by 2011, the end of the county's two-year budgeting cycle. Two-thirds of the positions targeted are filled, meaning that up to 700 people would lose their jobs.
The county workforce needs to be reduced. But Bean's plan, two years after the housing collapse, shows no creativity. It also does not reshape the bureaucracy in an orderly way. Many cuts would decimate front-line services such as child care, animal control, parks and code enforcement. The cuts would come as many nonprofits are curtailing their services, too. It is essential in this environment for the public and private sectors to work together to avoid major gaps in services. Bean's budget amounts to a go-alone strategy that merely buys the county bureaucracy some time.
The administration never looked at increasing taxes or raising user fees for county programs. It has done almost nothing the past three years to examine whether it could run some operations jointly with the city of Tampa or other municipalities. Bean dismissed the idea in her budget document to commissioners by saying such opportunities are "limited" and "typically evolve" over several years. Where has she been? The housing market began to collapse in 2007. Why has the county wasted the two years when it should have identified efficiencies and built upon them?
Bean acknowledged she does not expect strong revenue growth for at least five years. That would suggest she has a plan for moving forward. But the county's efforts to become more efficient look ridiculous. Bean lauded two departments for sharing a receptionist and code enforcement for reusing file folders. She offered no broad plan for reducing layers of management. On consolidating city-county services, she asked only for the commission's help in bringing "potential partners" to the table. Bean even pushed back when Commissioner Mark Sharpe asked for auditors to come in to identify the fat in county government.
Sharpe and Commissioner Kevin Beckner are right that the administrator needs a mind-set change. They were among those who urged Bean to explore ways to consolidate at least some operations. No one should expect Commissioner Jim Norman to help change a culture of duplication and waste. His obsession with inflaming city-county divisions has helped stall the drive for efficiency and made Bean shy away from the challenge. Yet if the recession has demonstrated anything, it is the need for better leadership in efficiently providing government services. The taxpayers in Hillsborough could use some.