Just a third of the way into the budget year and Hernando commissioners correctly are being asked to turn their attention to county government's 2013 spending plan. The early start is a good exercise, particularly because some board members have demonstrated an inability to maintain focus, recall past commitments, or do much more than second guess the staff without offering alternatives.
Early estimates call for a 5 percent drop in property values that will mean more than $3.5 million in lost revenue from the general fund and other accounts if the tax rates remain the same. It marks the fifth consecutive year of projected spending cuts, some of which have been tempered previously by dipping into reserves.
Commissioners balanced the current budget in late September with the sleight-of-hand promise to either borrow up to $1.5 million in April — the midpoint of the fiscal year — or identify additional cuts. That loan, from an internal fund requiring repayment within two years, is now unlikely to be necessary. Savings, higher than projected revenues and some reserves from the past fiscal year are expected to fill the shortfall.
While dodging that bullet, commissioners must be prepared for another arduous budget cycle and they should avoid a repeat of delaying difficult decisions while hoping things will just work out eventually. That is especially true in an election year when three commission seats are on the ballot and the final budget vote comes just six weeks before the November general election.
In advance of a budget workshop next month, the county staff is asking commissioners to consider any number of alternatives including some ideas that have been panned in the past: a special taxing district for law enforcement, a gasoline tax increase, a sales tax increase and user fees. Commissioners also are being asked if they want to combine departments, adjust employee salaries and benefits, tap money previously set aside for a new judicial center to help cover a shortfall in unemployment insurance obligations, or set a policy of only paying for recurring expenses with recurring revenue.
Such a policy would eliminate the propensity for tapping reserves or seeking one-time revenues to pay for such things as employee salaries and other annual expenses tied to government operations. It is an imperative question to ponder.
Just as importantly, commissioners would be wise to give consideration throughout their budget deliberations to one of the first questions posed in a Jan. 6 memo from their chief procurement officer, Russ Wetherington. His inquiry referenced falling property values, but it should be answered in the budget's broader context of declining services, fewer employees, future obligations and Hernando County's quality of life:
What is the effect on the taxpayer?