The question to Pasco's taxpaying public is blunt: More service cuts are coming; which are most tolerable? It is the key inquiry being put forth at town hall meetings with county commissioners and in an online survey available at the county's website. The answers will help craft a proposed budget that is projecting a $17.6 million shortfall in the county's general and firefighting funds due to falling property values and other revenue reductions.
A year ago, veterans groups, agricultural interests, social service agencies and mass transit advocates tried — some with more success than others — to soften the budget cuts to their favored programs. Most of that lobbying spilled over during public meetings after county staff released its proposed budget in July. This year the public should ensure its voices are heard beforehand by attending one of the remaining town hall meetings or completing the survey. The meetings are from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Pasco-Hernando Community College East Campus in Dade City and from 2 to 4 p.m. May 15 at the Wesley Chapel High School auditorium. The website is pascocountyfl.net.
The online survey lists 13 county services, ranging alphabetically from animal control to veterans affairs, and asks participants which they favor or oppose reducing. Likewise, the public is asked to list its top three priorities for maintaining current levels of service. That only three answers are allowed is an ominous harbinger of the cuts that are expected to follow.
Commissioners balanced the current budget with a hiring and wage freeze, cuts to such things as library operating hours and park maintenance, some layoffs and a 19 percent property tax rate increase to the rollback rate. An election-year tax rate increase has not been discussed publicly this year.
The survey also gauges public sentiment toward user fees, special taxing districts to pay for services and asks how best to finance transportation upgrades. Those, too, are imperative questions considering the feedback from a year ago. A 2009 mail survey of 368 households showed one of the negative responses about the quality of life here focusing on road congestion. Better transit does not come cheaply.
The county outreach encourages a proactive approach to upcoming budget deliberations. Without broad input, however, special interests become more prominent, which can skew the final outcome. The general public shouldn't skip this opportunity to help shape the amount of service — whether it's operating hours at a park, bus routes, road maintenance or elderly nutrition — that Pasco County will provide in the coming year.