Hernando commissioners budget-balancing act continues to tilt in the wrong direction. They are again raiding a reserve account to meet expenses and now want to fire more workers and investigate dumping some county parks to avoid charging previously approved user fees.
By retreating from asking youth athletic leagues to share in the maintenance costs at the county ball fields, commissioners display finger-in-the-wind leadership on a budget that has been in place for nearly four months. They also are exacerbating a looming budget deficit they must confront before Oct. 1.
Individual commissioners recognize the danger of the fiscal imprudence.
"We cannot keep borrowing from ourselves to keep our budget balanced,'' said Commissioner John Druzbick, who ignored his own advice and joined a unanimous commission in voting to cancel fees charged to youth leagues (intended to raise $230,000); grab $115,000 in interest from a capital construction fund; and order the parks department to identify a matching $115,000 worth of cuts. The reductions, County Administrator David Hamilton said, likely will mean reduced personnel.
Later, Druzbick suggested the county consider disposing of under utilized parks since the current inventory of 18 county-maintained parks leaves Hernando above the recreation requirements dictated by the county's land use plan. The county can tap developers for donations to meet future needs, he suggested.
Jettisoning a couple of parks in rural spots does little to close the gap in maintenance costs. The park fees, for instance, were expected to produce less than a third of the expense of maintaining ball fields. More to the point, it won't make a dent in the projected $5 million deficit in the next budget year and still continues the misguided accounting technique of liquidating assets instead of generating revenue.
Tapping interest earned by the capital account — in which more than $12 million had been set aside for a standalone judicial center that has been mothballed — came at the suggestion of Commissioner Jeff Stabins, the leading proponent of the park fees. Stabins turned to the savings ledger after realizing a commission majority opposed the user fees. It beats closing parks, but still shows a commission unable to match spending with income.
For three consecutive years, commissioners took $3 million annually from reserves to avoid a property tax increase or even deeper cuts. They cannot continue to do so. The staff told commissioners last year that Hernando County will run out of money in 2012 when spending will outpace revenue and deplete reserves.
Instead of turning yet again to a different savings account, commissioners need to require people who use county services to assume a greater share of the cost of maintaining them.