Earlier this year, Hernando County commissioners considered building a new judicial center so vital they talked of expediting its construction to help provide jobs to the local economy.
That plan disintegrated amid the fiscal constraints forced upon the county by dwindling revenues, and commissioners agreed to delay the construction discussions for six months. Now, at least one commissioner is open to the idea of making the reversal complete. Commissioner Rose Rocco says the county should consider dipping into the capital spending account reserved for the new courthouse to help balance the upcoming budget.
It is short-sighted and indicative of the desperation among county staffers and commissioners as they march toward a July 28 deadline for setting a proposed property tax rate while simultaneously looking to close a projected $10 million budget shortfall beginning Oct. 1.
Rocco maintains that all options should be open to commissioners as they craft the budget. In that regard, she is correct, but so far most of the options have been nickle-and-dime ideas to cut transit service, possibly close the cannery, offer an employee buyout that attracted few takers, trim library hours and other small-scale savings. There has been little interest in generating new revenue to match expenditures, so a property tax rate increase is not being discussed, and last year the county retreated from the idea of charging fees to sports league athletes using county parks. So much for considering all options.
The pool of money that has garnered Rocco's attention is nearly $19 million set aside for a new judicial center that has been debated for several years. It is expected to carry a price tag of upwards of $80 million. Of the accrued kitty, $12.5 million is unencumbered and could be used for other purposes.
Raiding the fund would be a mistake, particularly if the money is moved to cover recurring expenses like personnel costs. It simply delays the hard decisions for a year, but does not solve the problem of writing a sustainable budget. It also fails to acknowledge the message from County Administrator David Hamilton and the budget staff that 2010 will be just as excruciating financially.
Accumulating money for capital projects will be more difficult in the near future because of falling property values and additional exemptions for homeowners included in voter-approved Amendment 1. If a long-term solution for courthouse crowding — eight judges now share six courtrooms — is indeed a priority for the county, then the account must be preserved.
Failure to do so is akin to blowing the down payment saved for a new house before investigating borrowing opportunities. Rocco and the rest of the commission must show fiscal responsibility greater than that.