The outlook for Hernando County's long-term solvency is grim without near immediate changes in county government spending habits. With no board action, Hernando County will run out of money in 2012. That is, its current spending will outpace revenue and deplete reserve accounts.
The sobering message from budget director George Zoettlein means the strategy of tapping reserves to balance the annual budget cannot be repeated after next year. Commissioners previously agreed to soften service cuts and, presumably, put off tax rate increase considerations by spending $9 million in reserves over a three-year period. But the commission now must devise a long-term plan for plugging that multimillion-dollar hole while simultaneously balancing a 2011 budget that is projecting an $8.3 million deficit.
It is a severe test of the county's leadership. County Administrator David Hamilton already promised a management review to determine if departments are top-heavy and said status quo budgets for constitutional officers are unlikely. Commissioners, however, can't expect the staff and other elected officials to shoulder the exclusive burden. The 2011 shortfall is the equivalent of eliminating nearly all nonessential spending, which would doom such things as parks, recreation, libraries and transportation planning.
Toward that end, commissioners should not: offer property tax relief while suggesting no corresponding spending cut; lament cuts in recycling just months after declining to increase the solid waste assessment; or hope for repeated civic benevolence like the private donation that helped keep the cannery afloat for another year. They will better serve the public by offering concrete suggestions, not duck-and-run platitudes.
Upcoming public forums are an opportune time to measure a community's willingness to invest in favored services. The first forum is 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Coast Guard Auxiliary Building, 4340 Calienta St., Hernando Beach, with more to follow later in May.
A sign of that much-needed cooperation and investment came last week when the commission, with the blessing of building industry representatives, increased some permit fees to help stave off $176,000 in red ink in Development Services. It's indicative that a special interest will pay for a service it considers valuable. The commission should see if others are wiling to follow suit.
Over the past two years, commissioners cut library and transit service; increased parking fees for beach patrons; privatized recycling; cut the sheriff's budget request, resulting in shuttered neighborhood substations; put off planning and building a new judicial center; asked some social service groups to do private fundraising in anticipation of future cuts; and allowed the parks department to begin beer sales at special events to produce new revenue.
Harder questions, however, about instituting new user fees at parks or increasing the gasoline tax never did come before the commission for a vote. Incidentally, the transportation trust fund, financed with ad valorem and gasoline taxes, is scheduled to go broke by 2015. Sadly, it is the most solvent county government fund outside the utilities department where spending does not exceed income.
Difficult decisions lie ahead. Without broad input, however, prominent special interests can skew the outcome. The budget forums are a sound way for the general public to be proactive in helping to shape county spending. It would be unwise to skip an opportunity to tell Hernando County what services it should value in 2011 and beyond.