Now is not the time to be shy. Just 70 days into the fiscal year, Hernando County government officials already are thinking about the 2014 budget and they want to hear what the public thinks.
The county has scheduled town hall meetings for 3 to 5 p.m. and again for 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Northcliffe Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, 10515 Northcliffe Blvd., Spring Hill. There are no staff presentations — just people there to listen and take notes.
It is an opportunity for the public to take an early and active role in shaping future county spending. Though town hall meetings have been a staple of the county for the past several years, the effort is beginning earlier this year because of a projected shortfall that could reach $10 million. Additionally, the county already has committed nearly all of its unencumbered reserves for the coming year to boost Animal Services, leaving questions about how the expansion will be financed after the current year. And future library services are in limbo because of expiring state grants.
Animal advocates and library patrons, however, aren't the only constituencies. In the past four years, people have come to town hall meetings to champion veterans services and expanded transportation while also filling the commission chambers to lobby for the Cannery and other pet projects. Two years ago, then-Commissioner Jeff Stabins asked for written budget-cutting ideas and received 225 suggestions from 96 people, many of them county employees. Two of those ideas, nixing the expense of a planned judicial center and cutting management positions, came to fruition.
Protecting vested interests is to be expected, but this time the public will be asked to comment without specific budget cuts on the drawing board. So, leave the unproductive, angry rhetoric at home and feel free to bring your own ideas on what is a worthwhile service and what might be considered a luxury.
If the public doesn't let the county know what's important now, there will be little justification to complain next summer when the coming year's budget details are released.