The day Hernando County commissioners reduced their mass transit system to a two-hour running time, Chairman David Russell characterized it as historic. Not for the budget cut, but because a unanimous commission agreed bus service was a worthwhile investment, in part, to maintain a stake in the long-range regional transit planning.
Under that definition, Tuesday's prolonged budget discussions also were significant. Again, not for the savings to the bottom line, but because a commission majority — it wasn't unanimous this time — recognized the validity of regional water planning.
One of the cost-savings ideas proposed by Commissioner Jeff Stabins was to eliminate Hernando's $31,332 dues to the Withlacoochee River Water Supply Authority by withdrawing from the agency.
Stabins, to his credit, offered alternative budget savings for commissioners to consider and pointed to the dues as a unnecessary drain on the general fund. On that point, he is correct. The county should think about paying all or part of the dues from its utilities department's enterprise fund financed by rate payers.
But more important, the rest of the commission, a former commissioner and the utilities director wisely deflated the notion of withdrawing from the regional authority. Abdicating a role in devising long-term plans to provide potable water to what is expected to again be a growing region is short-sighted and detrimental to the interests of Hernando's current and future residents.
It's not the first time this suggestion surfaced. Stabins wanted to explore pulling out in 2008 after taking umbrage with the authority's plan to begin retaining full-time employees at the same time local governments were cutting costs. We trust the idea this time is based on fiscal considerations and not simply a parochial remnant of last year's snit.
The county's dues, calculated at 20 cents per resident, allow it to remain a partner in developing and allocating water resources over a four-county area. It's a bargain. Besides, the county collected $46,000 in water conservation grants as a result of its minimal investment, said Commissioner Rose Rocco.
Reversing its membership status later would come with a significant price. Though Marion County was allowed to rejoin in 2008 after a long absence, its readmission fee included $145,000 for a study to merge its own long-rage water plans with the authority's. It's a hefty expense, nearly five years worth of dues, that Hernando likely would have a hard time swallowing in the future.
There is another consideration. Hernando's population entitles it to five seats on the 18-member water authority board which gives it the largest delegation. Hernando County should be leading this agency, not trying to drop it.