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Is canning fruits and vegetables worth more than the public's safety?

People will pay for a service they deem to have value, or at least they'll ask somebody else to foot the bill.

It is the lesson learned from the Hernando Commissioners decision this week to spare the cannery from its budget-cutting deliberations.

There is no denying the cannery is a charming piece of Americana — people throwing $10 into the kitty once a year to take advantage of the public facility and staff to put up fresh fruits and vegetables. When I was a kid, my own mother never left the house — except for acquiring the produce — to make and can applesauce, pickles and other fresh delectables. Apparently, that is not a realistic options for the 100 or so members of the cannery.

Of course, as a kid, I also played baseball and football nonstop in the school playground directly across the street from our house. Today's children don't seem to have such sandlot opportunities and instead they, and their parents, rely on the organized sports leagues operating at the well-manicured public parks and recreation facilities.

So it is safe to say the public has different expectations of government services these days. They want nice ball fields, but don't want to pony up extra for maintenance. Others want the cannery to remain open and —surprise — they'll try to raise the money to do so.

To their credit, cannery advocates have begun fundraising to try to offset the $55,000 annual operating expense. An anonymous donor's generosity covered the nearly $32,000 annual salary of the cannery's single employee.

The "I Can'' crowd asked the commission for time to raise the rest and some said they would be willing to pay a higher fee. That is an appropriate place to start. People said they would pay an extra 15 cents to save the cannery — the symbolic per-resident cost of the shortfall. A better question would be to ask if they'd be willing to pay $15. Raising the $10 membership fee to $25 or higher would be an accurate measure of whether the cannery operations can be sustainable amid a proposed county budget that includes no property tax rate increase and a $10 million hole in its revenues.

In the meantime, commissioners promised to cover the shortfall at the cannery by dipping into reserves. That is starting to become a dangerous standard procedure. They have put off raising utility fees by going into reserve accounts. For each of the next three years, they plan to pull $3 million from reserves and plug it into the revenue side of the general fund to offset anticipated shortfalls. Commissioner Rose Rocco has suggested the capital fund designated for construction of a courthouse also can be tapped.

In essence, commissioners are raiding reserves to finance a tax cut for much of the county because declining property values mean declining tax bills when the millage holds steady. Even with the state-required recapture rule that raises the assessments on homesteaded properties the same as the Consumer Price Index, the Hernando Property Appraiser's Office said only about 2 percent of the parcels saw increases in assessable taxable value.

Any expectations the tax rate could drop further by Oct. 1 are unrealistic, but then realism isn't always the case in the commission chambers.

Grabbing 20 grand from reserves for the cannery is easy compared to staring at a $2 million cut in Sheriff Richard Nugent's proposed budget. Perhaps the sheriff should have borrowed the strategy from the cannery's fans. A $2 million cut can be offset by getting $12.12 from each Hernando County resident. That's $1.01 a month. Imagine if Nugent had presented a buck and a penny to the commission and said, "Count me in for the same each month.''

Instead, he's talking about having to lay off 31 full-time and 12 part-time employees, including 27 sworn officers. It would mean no schooling for children on avoiding drugs, alcohol and gang activities. No staff at the substation. No helicopter or marine units and private guards replacing bailiffs at the courthouse.

These are difficult decisions, no doubt. The question commissioners must consider is whether their constituents value these services as much as they do freshly canned fruit and vegetables.

Is canning fruits and vegetables worth more than the public's safety? 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 9:36am]
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