Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes thinks everyone should know the price to close a projected multimillion-dollar budget deficit next fall. He's right.
To raise $10 million, the county would need to raise the property tax rate so that the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 of taxable value would pay another $133. In soliciting such information from the county staff, Dukes would better serve his constituents if he broadened his focus, removed the blinders and looked at the expense side of the budget as well.
Here's what didn't get asked: What services would be cut if Hernando County keeps its status quo tax rate of less than $5.92 for every $1,000 of taxable property value in 2014?
Even if the deficit amounts to just $6 million, the choices facing the commission could include the equivalent of:
• Shuttering every park and library;
• Eliminating spending for the property appraiser, tax collector and clerk of the circuit court in the general fund;
• Wiping out salaries for the 165 Sheriff's deputies and civilian employees working at the jail, courthouse, transportation and warrants divisions;
• Or, laying off the equivalent of 100 deputies earning the starting salary and benefit package of approximately $60,000.
For four consecutive years, commissioners have raided reserve accounts, accumulated by their predecessors, to balance the county budget. They did so again this week in giving initial approval to a tentative budget for 2013. They would use $3 million in reserves despite their public proclamations to end the practice of spending more than they take in.
A once-robust account reserved for a new courthouse has dwindled to just $4 million. Meanwhile the county is projecting shortfalls of between $5 million to $10 million to come due in 2014 because of falling property values, a tax collection rate of just 91 percent, expiring library grants and potential voter disapproval of a mosquito funding tax.
It's not like there is substantial fat to cut. Just 176 employees who answer to commission-controlled departments remain on the general fund payroll. That is down from 243 positions in 2010.
Dukes, in talking about county services, proclaimed, "I think we're doing a halfway decent job at it.'' He should aim higher. "Halfway decent'' has led to, among other things, a public uproar at Animal Services operations; complaints about diminished code enforcement; unsightly public rights of way and deteriorating parks.
The commission needs to approve its 2013 budget this month and then begin considering the choices that lie ahead in 2014 and beyond. They can ask their constituents to settle for even less government services or they can figure out that $133 in property taxes would cost their typical homeowner 36 cents per day.
What's the price tag of halfway decent?