The budget for 2012 that Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill proposed this month gets the big things right: no raises, a leaner county bureaucracy and more money for job development efforts. It offers a sound basis for navigating another tough year without overlooking key investments in critical areas, from economic development to the arts and social services. But county commissioners need to watch the details as some projects are unjustified in these tough fiscal times and other plans will have real ramifications.
Merrill and his staff did a good job of balancing the budget in what will be a fourth consecutive year with a declining tax base. His $3 billion spending plan leaves reserves intact and shaves $500 million from what the county will spend this year. Over the last two years, the county has consolidated some departments, cut back on the use of vehicles and mobile phones, and taken other cost-saving steps. Still, hundreds of employees could lose their jobs under the budget plan. The county also would defer numerous big-ticket capital projects.
Merrill showed an antenna to the times by committing an extra $3.6 million to job development efforts. The county would create a "closing fund" to land business relocations and use $1 million as seed money to spur biotech and clean-energy ventures. These are worthwhile investments, but they need the right spending controls. Merrill took the better course by cutting spending on nonprofits by 20 percent rather than axing this assistance outright. Charities are serving a bigger role now that governments are rolling back social services.
Merrill is right that the county needs a new disaster command center; its current emergency operations headquarters is too cramped to accommodate all the officials involved in managing a hurricane or other catastrophe. But his proposal to spend $37 million on a multiuse building is exorbitant. The county needs a secure facility outfitted with up-to-date technology. But it does not need a complex that doubles as a new headquarters for the fire department. Merrill would merge the 42 neighborhood-based recreation centers into 12 larger, regional facilities. That could be a hardship for residents without transportation. His plan to shift after-school care from the county to other providers raises serious questions about access. And Merrill needs to explain why downsizing at County Center now requires a $500,000 salary study. That money could pay for a host of more pressing needs, such as augmenting the Animal Services Department's hugely successful spay and neuter program, which serves public health and safety.
Still, the proposal is a good starting point as commissioners begin a summerlong series of hearings on the budget. Merrill, for the most part, has the right priorities, a grip on reality and an eye to the future.