The response from citizens, mid-level managers and elected commissioners to Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean's uninspiring budget has been reassuring. They are doing what the county's chief executive could not: sparing essential services while eliminating a $133 million hole in next year's budget. The money being found for programs for children, animal welfare and social services is nibbling around the edges. But it shows the recession is not a blanket waiver from setting priorities.
Commissioners meet today to revisit spending cuts they flagged for reconsideration during recent budget hearings. This could have been one of the most divisive budget cycles in years, but commissioners set a positive tone, focused on saving front-line services and worked creatively with the staff and the public to spare popular programs.
Child care advocates have pleaded with the county not to end its inspection and licensing of day care centers — a job it took over from the state. Day care owners and associations have volunteered to pay higher fees to offset the $1 million that Bean hoped to save by eliminating the function by 2011. The board rejected Bean's plan to eliminate a $2.5 million program that helps crime victims navigate the judicial system. There also looks to be consensus on finding the $800,000 necessary to spare the consumer protection office, a major help against fraud.
The county's animal services department has also reached out to undo several unreasonable proposals. Bean wanted to stop responding to nuisance animal complaints, eliminate animal cruelty investigations and reduce adoption services for unwanted animals. This is unacceptable for an operation that has turned a corner. In the last three years, the county has cut by more than a quarter the number of animals it has euthanized while more than doubling the number it has placed through adoptions.
An advisory committee has recommended the county increase its annual animal tag fee by $10, to $20 for sterilized animals and $40 for others. The fees have not been increased since early this decade. Officials will need to reach out to pet owners to ensure the increase does not cause a further dropoff in registrations. The increase is better than losing the services outright, but finding at least half the $1 million needed from other sources would be better.
Commissioners have plenty of sources of money. Millions set aside for nonprofits, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Museum of Science & Industry and sports tourism could be scaled back this year to fund essential public services. There are bigger budget battles for sure — taking on sacred cows, such as the fire department, and consolidating services internally and with other governments. But there is no time for that now. The commission must patch Bean's budget as best as possible and then turn to fundamental reform next year. At least the staff and interested citizens have bought board members some time.