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Hernando County needs to be bold in tackling the budget

Hernando County keeps lifting the seat cushions looking for loose change in the sofa when it should be more aggressive in its quest for $10 million, the difference between the projected revenue and anticipated expenses for the county budget year beginning Oct. 1. The nickel-and-dime ideas floated at a Commission Budget and Finance Committee meeting last week or approved already by the full commission fail to address significantly the task ahead.

Consider the work in neighboring counties:

Pinellas County is contemplating $70 million worth of reductions that includes eliminating 367 full-time jobs and reducing services like code enforcement, animal control and even closing park rest rooms on weekdays.

Pasco County is setting the stage to propose a general fund property tax increase to help fill its $30 million budget hole and has polled taxpayers via surveys, focus groups and town-hall meetings to determine which services the public values most and which could be cut or eliminated.

Now ponder Hernando County, where bold ideas have been scarce. Commissioners halved its mass transit service, THE Bus, to save $142,000, or less than $1 per resident per year, but simultaneously forfeited roughly a half-million dollars in federal and state subsidies for the fixed-route system.

Meanwhile, the budget committee, with only two commissioners as members, talked of closing Little Rock Cannery or offering employee buy-outs, but made little headway in offering recommendations to the full board. A gasoline tax increase could be considered, the panel said, but only if it is accompanied by a corresponding cut in property taxes for transportation.

Then why bother? That simply changes the pockets from which the money comes, but does nothing to address long-term budget solvency.

The slow-moving process can be attributed, in part, to the onset of negotiations with 535 newly-unionized county employees represented by Teamsters Local 79. But with no binding contract, the government has the ability to set staffing levels and salary scales for the coming year absent the union's blessing.

The commission's new committee structure isn't particularly effective either. All five commissioners should be on the front end of these discussions. Asking citizens and a board minority to vet ideas first is unproductive and allows public debate to stray into micro-management and venting of pet peeves.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins grasped the heavy lifting that is needed. He suggested across the board cuts of up to 10 percent and candidly pointed out that $10 million won't be found "just by eliminating the cannery.''

Assembling and approving the county budget is arguably the most important duty of county commissioners. It's not easy when revenue are flowing freely, and it is especially challenging this year because of the recession, voter-approved property tax exemptions and falling real estate values.

The public shouldn't have to scrounge under the cushions to find leadership. That should be on the dais each Tuesday.

Hernando County needs to be bold in tackling the budget 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 4:30am]
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