After nearly seven months of work, Pasco has a new budget, but it won't necessarily make the county any prettier. Last week the county commission unanimously approved property tax increases and a spending plan for fiscal year 2014, which starts on Tuesday. But while it wisely rejected a gas tax increase, it squandered fully utilizing an unanticipated $200,000 surplus. Among the highlights:
The commission wisely agreed to accept private donations and dip into the county's own reserves to make up an $83,000 deficit in its elderly nutrition program, which serves 800 mid-day meals daily at eight sites and via Meals on Wheels home deliveries.
Without the added county subsidy — required to offset federal sequester-triggered budget cuts — the food program faced the prospect of cutting 14,000 meals annually from a service that already has a 120-person waiting list. Commissioners went one step further and agreed to explore private partnerships to try to reduce that waiting list.
"It isn't just the food,'' observed Commissioner Pat Mulieri, 75. "You're feeding their minds, you're feeding their emotions. They'd be lost'' without it.
The decision earlier this month to kill a proposed nickel-per-gallon gasoline tax increase spared motorists from absorbing another added expense. Commissioners still managed to finance future road repairs, new streetlights, and median landscaping by relocating millions of dollars from an existing gas tax. Some long-range road construction projects likely will be delayed, but commissioners can still devise financing alternatives at a workshop next month. Commissioners should have considered those alternatives before recommending a higher new gas tax.
Commissioners agreed to send an extra $36,000 to the Pasco Sheriff's Office to keep Officer Friendly walking the beat in Lacoochee and near Dade City.
The two positions are funded via a mix of federal and local dollars and commissioners correctly recognized the value of maintaining this traditional community-oriented policing technique in two low-income areas.
Government workers have been portrayed inaccurately by some critics as recipients of too-generous compensation compared to the private sector. Excluding firefighters, the Pasco County government work force — deputies, utility workers, road crews, clerks, accountants, technicians and other staffers answering to county commissioners and constitutional officers — have gone five years without a pay adjustment. Additionally, they absorbed a 3 percent pay cut two years ago, courtesy of the state Legislature, which balanced the state budget on the backs of public employees.
This year, county finances finally improved enough for 3 percent across-the-board salary increases — the same amount taken by the state since 2011. Returning salaries to 2007-08 levels is neither exorbitant nor overly generous. It's remediation for heavy-handed governing in Tallahassee.
Code enforcement scofflaws
In its most disappointing decision, the commission scuttled a plan to enhance code enforcement to keep aging neighborhoods and commercial districts from falling into disrepair. The department currently has 14 code officers, down from 24 in 2008, but commissioners balked at providing $300,0000 to add four officers. Even after the request was whittled to just $135,000 for two positions, a majority objected. It was short-sighted and counter-productive to the long-range goal of redeveloping west Pasco.
The snub was particularly noteworthy because commissioners had indicated a willingness to add the code officers if money became available. It did, but nobody acted. An unanticipated $200,000 surplus in the current Sheriff's Office budget allowed commissioners to finance the senior meals and Officer Friendly. But they were remiss in not the earmarking the remaining $97,000 of the windfall toward code enforcement.
Stemming the spread of blight must be a higher priority in a county asking property owners to pay more to live and conduct business here.