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ADKINS TOOK EASY WAY IN HARD BUDGET DEBATE

Clearly, there is an uneven workload on the Hernando County Commission. Thursday evening, while Chairman David Russell and Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested specific ways to control spending, Commissioner Jim Adkins simply indulged the audience by saying the board must work harder to cut taxes.

Proposing a quarter-mill cut in the general fund property tax rate - with no accompanying suggestion on how to reduce $2 million in spending - was Adkins paltry contribution to the first public hearing on the 2010 county budget.

It allowed Adkins to bask in the gratitude from the antitax advocates, but the heavy lifting fell to others. It is unfortunate. Leadership goes beyond pandering, and it is incumbent upon Adkins to identify potential spending cuts if he believes further property tax relief is warranted.

Adkins should have been more cognizant of the work of his fellow commissioners. To help Elections Supervisor Annie Williams cut $40,000, Commission Chairman David Russell promised help in recruiting Election Day volunteers to save on poll worker costs.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins wanted to hold the line on Sheriff's Office spending, worked to negotiate a new deal with the private contractor running the jail and sought to plug more money into employees' payroll to stave off looming job cuts.

Even audience members had some ideas: Cap future spending on a planned judicial center and cut salaries for upper management.

We suspect Adkins didn't offer to search for $2 million in savings because there are so few places left to look. Consider:

-Hernando County government has reduced its workforce of 1,425 employees to 1,289 over the past three years and still must identify a half-million dollars in personnel cuts even after the projected savings from an early retirement incentive are applied.

-Beachgoers will pay more to park at Pine Island Park and mass transit users will wait longer to ride THE Bus.

-Adkins and the commission passed on the politically touchy topics of limiting library operations and closing the cannery by relying on grants and a private-sector donation.

-The Hernando Sheriff's Office must make do with just slightly more than it did this year, when it saved $1.7 million by leaving positions vacant and through other austerity measures.

These cost savings weren't in answer to Adkins' politicking, but were devised over the past several months in response to a $10 million budget shortfall attributed to plunging property values and recession-driven reductions in sales and gas tax receipts and state revenue sharing aid.

Cutting spending was the only alternative because the commission declined to increase the general fund tax rate of just less than $5.44 per $1,000 of taxable property value. Expecting to identify $2 million in additional savings to meet Adkins' challenge of lowering the rate to under $5.19 per $1,000 is unrealistic. The only alternative is raiding the reserve account for the planned judicial center, a move that would be short-sighted and only exacerbate financing difficulties for the long-awaited project.

Russell, at the outset of the public hearings, characterized the budget as active, rather than passive, and noted further alterations will be needed during the year. Indeed. But a legitimate question is whether Commissioner Adkins contributes to any of that activity beyond ingratiation.

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