Pasco commissioners spent four months debating how to balance the county budget for the current fiscal year then undermined the effort with just a few minutes of seat-of-the-pants governing at their final meeting of 2011.
In a demonstration of generous holiday spirit, commissioners voted 4-1 to affirm a suggestion from Commissioner Henry Wilson to give county employees an unscheduled paid day off by shutting down county offices on Friday, Dec. 23. Projected cost to the county was $300,000 from three separate accounts to pay the unplanned overtime for firefighters, ambulance crews and utilities workers.
We don't fault Wilson's sentiment, just his timing. He sought to reward employees who have gone four years without raises and this year are absorbing a 3 percent pay cut to finance retirement benefits. But, a more opportune time for this conversation would be during the annual budget deliberations that stretched from June through late September.
Consider the implications:
• Paying overtime to firefighters cost $143,000 from the fire district fund financed by a property tax. That is enough to hire two full-time firefighter/paramedics in a department that wants to add 11 people after losing 18 firefighting positions over the past four years.
It also is counterproductive to spend more on overtime after the commission learned in November that the fire department had spent a sixth of its yearly overtime budget in the first month of the fiscal year. The department said it faced the prospect of so-called brown-outs when trucks respond with only two firefighters instead of three — a cost-saving measure that increases safety risks.
• Paying the emergency service workers cost $73,000 from the general fund financed primarily by property taxes that also pay for other high-profile government functions like law enforcement, parks, libraries.
The unplanned overtime equates to more than 60 percent of the cost of keeping open the swimming pool at the Veterans Memorial Park in Hudson for still another year. In the fall, the commission indicated the $118,000 subsidy allowing the pool to open in 2012 was a stop-gap measure and that permanent closure loomed without a new funding source.
• The $71,000 to pay the utilities department comes from a budget financed by water and sewer customers. The expenditure comes three months after commissioners increased its utility rates to those customers.
Only Commissioner Jack Mariano identified the skewed timing of the spending. Unfortunately, he turned it into a pitch for his favorite lost cause — eliminating the parks fees approved by the commission in 2010. But, at least Mariano considered the cost of Wilson's idea against a broader context of other county needs.
Commissioners seeking to reward their employees should set the annual compensation and benefit scales in a more timely manner to allow public comment and debate. That needs to be done simultaneously with other spending decisions that ask water and sewer customers for more money, short-change the fire department or threaten closure of a valuable community asset. Playing Santa Claus can't be done in a vacuum.