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Looking for fun? Dream on

The list is long and controversial.

An impact fee for school construction. Watering restrictions. Affordable housing complexes near established neighborhoods. Adult entertainment. A defeated property tax for parks.

During the past several months, as they moved through an ambitious agenda, county commissioners have been lobbied, cajoled and plain old beaten up by builders, gardeners, homeowners, lap dance lawyers and Little League parents. Not to mention criticism from cranky commentary writers.

So, consider this inquiry that might be circulating around the commission chambers.

Hey, when's the fun part?

"There is no fun part," deadpanned commission chairman Steve Simon.

Overstated, but certainly a sentiment that is being echoed.

The fun part, everyone presumed, might come during the summer's budget deliberations. Property Appraiser Mike Wells already pronounced the tax base up a healthy 10.4 percent, surpassing the $10-billion mark. The expected windfall from property taxes, projected in the spring at $10-million, might allow the county to tackle something other than the mundane.

During the past few years, commissioners have been able to bolster law enforcement, give their employees raises, begin a computer upgrade, fund drainage improvements and hire additional planners to improve development review. They even included a small election-year tax cut in the budget in 1998.

Not altogether sexy, but certainly a step away from the county's philosophy for much of the 1990s: No new people, no new programs.

Much of the new money in the county budget over the past three years went to the Pasco Sheriff's Office to hire 45 new deputies and then to grant sizeable raises to the staff.

This year, new Sheriff Bob White didn't seek additional deputies, though the budget he described as maintenance still seeks a $3.3-million increase to cover employee raises and some new patrol cars.

Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning needs to buy new voting machines in the wake of legislative action after the presidential recount.

Circuit Court Clerk Jed Pittman wants an $811,000 increase in his budget.

County administrators set aside money to build fire stations and hire 21 people to staff them in the wake of expanded rescue services. Plus, there's a cost overrun to be absorbed in the ongoing renovation of the Pasco County Courthouse.

So, when the proposed county budget landed on commissioners' desks this week, it called for a 5 percent increase over the current property tax rate. Just to get down the current level of $9.132 per $1,000 of assessed value, commissioners need to cut a little more than $5-million.

Fun? What fun?

Commissioner Peter Altman envisioned funding for cultural events, maybe a few bucks tucked away for park construction to help match what is expected to be raised from a still-pending impact fee.

Nothing.

"If we can't build in something for the public except government houses for bureaucracies, how can we get people excited about the county?" Altman asked.

Did the board's other new commissioner, Ted Schrader, think there would be more money available for new initiatives in his first budget?

"Honestly? Yes" said Schrader. "You'd like to be able to use it for your constituency. I'm a little bit disturbed, if you will. What if we hadn't had the increased assessment? Then we'd be cutting tremendously."

As it is, expect cuts to lower the tax rate closer to its current level. The sheriff might not get everything he wants. The voting machine costs likely will be spread over more than one year. Money for voter education is a potential trim. And the Economic Development Council's pitch for more money will be a tough sell to commissioners.

While the budget is advertised as more than $530-million, the true wiggle room is in the general fund, financed mostly through $111-million in property taxes. Law enforcement is the top expense, consuming more than half of the property tax revenues. It helps explain the historic budget battle between Pasco's sheriffs and its commissioners.

Cutting budget plans is nothing new. In fact, it's expected. County Administrator John Gallagher annually submits spending requests from constitutional officers and outside groups like the EDC to the commission unabridged. Rarely, do they survive unscathed.

It's just not that much fun.

"This year," opined Simon, "is not a fun year. No doubt about it."

_ C.T. Bowen is editor of editorials for the Pasco Times.

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