The budget picture for Hillsborough County is ugly and likely to get worse. The recession will mean a loss of at least $110 million in tax revenue next year. Revenues are expected to decline again in 2011 and stagnate for another five years. Hillsborough commissioners, who have just opened talks over next year's budget, will have to juggle an increase in demand for services with fewer dollars. They can do it only by eliminating political pork and making the appropriations process more transparent.
There is no good time to waste public money. But the economic downturn has focused public attention on where, and how, governments spend tax money. County administrator Pat Bean said declining revenues could force up to 1,000 job cuts, or one-sixth of the county government's work force. Commissioners will shape the budgets for both 2010 and 2011 in deliberations this spring and summer. But clearly, layoffs, reductions in services and higher fees for some county programs are on the table. It is vital in this environment that taxpayers and nonprofits that depend on public funding have confidence that commissioners are setting the right priorities.
Commissioners can start by stopping the abusive practice of "flagging" pet projects to fund. Every year, in the waning days — and sometimes hours — of the budget process, commissioners commit or try to steer millions of dollars to projects close to their hearts. The projects last year were nothing unusual — a library, the Girl Scouts, the aquarium, tax breaks. County staff members typically can find the money. The commission has agreed to set a firm deadline for nonprofits to apply for money and to not consider last-minute requests without a supermajority vote. But what hurdle is a supermajority vote when commissioners already play nod-nod, wink-wink when their individual requests come up for last-minute approval?
The county should explore a suggestion by Commissioner Al Higginbotham for a "cooling off" period between the time a final budget is proposed and voted on, similar to the 72-hour waiting period before the Florida Legislature takes a final vote on the state budget. The intent is to create a review period to expose the final budget, with all its last-minute amendments, to public scrutiny. Regardless of where this idea goes, Higginbotham is right that the budgeting process needs to be more transparent. That will require not only more effort from the staff, but more restraint from its elected commission bosses.