When times were good earlier this decade, local governments didn't spend as if there were no tomorrow. No, it was worse. They spent as if tomorrow would always be better than today. • The collapse of the housing market and the precipitous fall in property tax revenues show how flawed and shortsighted that thinking was. And now governments and citizens are paying the price for years of spending that far outstripped inflation.
As St. Petersburg Times staff writer Bill Varian details in today's Perspective, many local governments went on a binge when times were good, expanding their budgets, giving generous raises, building new facilities and hiring to staff them.
And now that times are bad, the choices and the cutbacks are far worse than they would have been had governments been more fiscally circumspect. In the boom times, government failed to plan for a future that wasn't as bright as the present. Even when governments are flush with cash, elected officials need to remember how to say no. It may be easy to say yes to outsized raises in good times. That doesn't make it right. The same is true of new services, buildings and staff.
There is nothing inherently wrong with enhancing reasonable government services, so long as decisionmakers look ahead and figure out how they will pay the salaries of the staff in that new facility — whether it's a fire station, library or park — when times turn sour. But to spend money just because it's coming in is folly, pure and simple. That's especially true given the state's history of boom and bust cycles, which should make preparing for a bust second nature.
Pinellas County has nearly finished a beautiful $23.6 million park in Largo. But it can't afford the cost of actually running it right now, so it will sit empty and fenced off from the public until April.
In Hillsborough County, nearly all of its share of the half penny sales tax revenues it will collect through 2026 has already been committed.
These are not exemplars of financial rectitude. Some officials will say they were only doing as they were asked, that their constituents wanted the new services. But leaders are elected to lead and should do so.
Of course, Florida's flawed property tax structure plays a role, too. The Save Our Homes amendment, by shielding longtime homeowners from rapidly rising assessments, kept this reliable voting bloc from sharing in the true cost of ever-growing government spending. They had little incentive to encourage their leaders to spend less. After all, the coffers were being filled disproportionately with other people's tax dollars.
The lessons for government are simple. Before letting budgets rise faster than inflation or population changes would dictate, officials should look long and hard at why they would do that. And they must remember that what they buy today will incur a cost tomorrow. Most important, in good times as much as in bad, they need to be good stewards of the budget. That's a lesson to remember when the bust again becomes a boom.
After all, the money they are spending is not theirs. It comes from the taxpayer.