For a county grappling (like others in Florida) with voter-mandated revenue cuts and a slowing economy, Hillsborough's budget next year doesn't look too bad. The county is putting off the luxuries — building new parks, libraries and fire stations — but it at least is positioned to meet the basic needs of children, the elderly, first-time home buyers and the neighborhoods. As public hearings continue this summer on the budget, those priorities need to stick.
The overall budget, at $3.87-billion, is down 4.3 percent from this year. But cuts in the major operating funds, for day-to-day services, total just $117-million. Much of that can be absorbed by eliminating jobs that are already vacant and making county programs more efficient. Even the jobs cut, the county administrator acknowledges, are in areas where lower staffing levels "can be sustained for an extended period."
County commissioners set the right tone at their first budget hearing last week by vowing to reject the administration's call to cut summer and afterschool recreation programs. Commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe deserve credit for their vocal support for giving kids a better alternative than falling in with the wrong crowd and ending up in the juvenile justice system. The cuts to senior services, job creation and animal control are enough to preserve these vital functions of county government. Health, social and children's services would actually get a bump. But the budget figures are only part of the story; officials move money around. What's clear is that the county has enough for essential services.
The cuts to consumer protection and code enforcement efforts could have a real impact. But other investigative agencies exist to handle citizens' complaints, and in the case of code enforcement, the county could pledge to beef up those efforts again once the economy recovers. The county should not close its television station. People who cannot come downtown on a weekday should still be able to see their elected representatives in action.
But the deficit is manageable, and commissioners started the horse-trading on the right foot — by setting priorities, seeing to the basics and preserving most programs so they can recover once the economy does.