Like his peers around the Tampa Bay area and the state, Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala is looking at balancing declining revenues and increased demand for services. Unlike some, he is not optimistic about a quick recovery from the recession or focused on short-term fixes. His goals to resize county government and re-evaluate its core mission is a blend of vision and pragmatism tailored to economic reality.
Give LaSala credit for that unflinching assessment of the county revenue picture and for resolving to look beyond balancing the budget through the next fiscal year. In a recent meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, LaSala, 59, said he does not expect the economic picture to stabilize until 2011. He intends to respond to a projected 9 to 13 percent decline in revenues next year by proposing a cut of 15 to 20 percent in spending in the 2009-10 budget.
Why cut more than immediately necessary? LaSala, who has experience with California's revenue challenges, believes a broad economic recovery in Florida may be several years away. He expects continued declines in property tax and sales tax revenues, and perhaps even another Amendment 1-style action by Florida voters to further restrain government spending. The current size of the county government cannot be sustained through all that, he said, so he suggests a big cut now and budget planning that looks two or three years ahead rather than the traditional one year. That will require hard choices for county commissioners facing issues ranging from affordable housing to the homeless to health care — as well as providing basic services such as public safety. The idea is not to trim around the edges but to make clear choices about what must be done and what is no longer affordable.
Such a reduction may require a shrinking of the county workforce, consolidation of services, mothballing of some county assets, and asking county commissioners to re-examine their priorities. But LaSala believes that if he cuts enough now and stays ahead of the downward trend, county government will be more stable and the public will have more confidence in county leadership.
LaSala has suggested that county commissioners begin the budget season with a countywide "listening tour," to hear what the public believes can be cut and what should be saved. He promises a transparent county administration that engages the public often.
With the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area now at 8.3 percent and rising, no one expects a quick recovery. LaSala is preparing for the long haul, and county commissioners and Pinellas residents should be prepared to face some very difficult choices.