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Consumers will lose an advocate

Self-help is be the apparent buzz word for Pasco County government. The county acknowledged this week its one-person Consumer Affairs Office will dissolve Oct. 1 at the start of the new fiscal year. Pasco residents with complaints about businesses will be directed to the state Division of Consumer Services.

They also have the option of contacting the Better Business Bureau of West Central Florida or doing their own legwork to determine whether a company is properly licensed or the subject of past complaints. What they won't have is the benefit of a local government representative acting on their behalf unless business actions rise to the level of criminal activity.

The demise of the Consumer Affairs Office is not about ineffective governing. It is about saving money. Consumer Affairs becomes the latest casualty of a draft county budget to be released next month that cuts services. The county is attempting to make up a $17-million shortfall attributed to reduced property tax collections from voter-approved Amendment 1. Plus, the economic downturn has meant $5-million more in additional cuts because of falling sales tax and other revenues.

The county previously took small steps to balance the proposed budget by cutting operating hours at its libraries and recreation centers, freezing employee salaries and raising fees. It plans to eliminate charitable grants, and county administrators asked the Pasco Sheriff's Office to absorb $7-million in cuts because it accounts for more than half the property tax revenue in the general fund.

Consumer Affairs, which has limited enforcement authority, typically attempts to broker compromises between businesses and complaining customers. Its investigator put his case load at up to 700 annually. By comparison, the Pasco Code Enforcement Office received more than 25,000 complaints in 2006 and responded to more than 19,000.

In the pre-Internet days of government, the Consumer Affairs Office also handled public information and cable television regulation — duties now handled by other county departments. Now, it often is the first place to which commissioners and other agencies turn when they receive constituent complaints about the private sector. For instance, the Consumer Affairs telephone number is the first Pasco contact listed by the Area Agency on the Aging, which assists senior citizens. In the fall, those calls will go elsewhere.

Commissioners must approve the county budget by Sept. 30 and plan a series of town hall meetings to gather public input on spending reductions. What is clear from the cuts already announced and the grumbling from some quarters that followed is a need for public expectations of government services to be right-sized to meet new budget realities.

Consumers will lose an advocate 06/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 10:49am]
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