The issue: County government priorities for 2010.
Hernando TodayOn Friday, Hernando County commissioners will meet to set priorities and goals for 2010.
Published: January 6, 2010
Published: January 6, 2010
It should be a short list.
We'd like to see commissioners focus on two key areas and produce timely and measurable results:
Shrink the bloated county government bureaucracy that contributed to the housing bust and is an impediment to the county's economic revival.
Do whatever possible to promote private-sector job creation.
If Hernando County is to pull out of this economic quagmire anytime soon, those are the two areas that will benefit Hernando Countians the most.
At 14.7 percent for November, the jobless rate here is among the highest in the state. Families are hurting; residents are leaving to find jobs elsewhere. Empty homes that once held the hopes of the American dream for so many sit vacant, abandoned. Clogging the courts, foreclosures and bankruptcies are at an all-time high.
Commissioners can help by doing everything in their power to promote job growth. They need to remove barriers to employers trying to grow their businesses, and they need to devote more funds and provide greater incentives to attract new business and industry to Hernando County.
Commissioners should also promote incubator business partnerships with the private sector and put an end to the frustration businesses encounter in dealing with the county. Ask any business owner who has recently constructed a new building, added on or remodeled and they will tell you it was a lengthy and costly nightmare dealing with the Brooksville-based bureaucracy.
Commissioners need to sit down and brainstorm with representatives of the business community what those barriers are and determine how they can improve or remove them.
It must be a top priority of county government to expedite the process for job growth. Commissioners need to be held accountable.
While much of the gloom and doom of 2009 is now in the rearview mirror for many Hernando countians, county government is just beginning the painful realization. Because property tax receipts are based on the prior year's values, the proverbial shoe has yet to drop for county government bean counters.
For sure, it's going to be ugly.
And, unfortunately, commissioners put off much of the pain this budget year by failing to go along with many of County Administrator David Hamilton's proposed cuts and by dipping more than $3.7 million into county reserves to balance this year's budget. Commissioners have already said they intend to use another $3 million next year to prop up another unbalanced budget. That won't touch the deficit they'll encounter if changes aren't made.
Instead of making the tough budgetary decisions in 2009 to avoid the inevitable head-on financial collision 2010 will bring, commissioners took an optimistic wait-and-see approach, apparently thinking the local economy might improve and they'd be spared the political reality of playing the guys with the black hats.
Unfortunately, Christmas has passed and Santa didn't bring any bags of money this year to help prop up county government. President Barack Obama may have provided stimulus cash to repave a lot of roads and bike trials that really didn't need it, but those funds will be long gone with it comes time to match expected revenues with expenditures next summer. So will the jobs.
Property values continued to freefall in 2009, hopefully hitting bottom late in the year. That means tax receipts for the 2010-11 budget will drop accordingly. Any attempt by commissioners to raise property taxes to meet the previous year's revenue might well be met with torches and pitch folks at the county courthouse. A cash-strapped, credit card maxed-out public is in no mood to pay more taxes to a wasteful government - especially those struggling to save their homes.
When property values skyrocketed, so did property tax statements. Property owners deserve the same now that they've plummeted and left many of them holding mortgages that far exceed the value of their homes and businesses.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins and Sheriff Richard Nugent have already seen the writing on the wall.
Stabins is concerned that departments are spending close to 100 percent of the funds budgeted this year. He wants them to start spending 90 percent or less to keep a cushion for next year when Old Mother Hubbard visits the cupboard and finds that it's bare.
Still, Stabins and his colleagues on the commission should have made it easier on themselves and the taxpayers and cut all department budgets another 10 percent before approving the 2009-10 budget. Asking taxpayers to help fund the 2009-10 budget as well as the 2010-11 budget in the same year smacks of over-taxation.
We like the idea of saving money, but we like the savings to go into our pockets, not government's.
As for the sheriff, he was fortunate to get commissioners to approve this year's budget before notifying them that he would have a $2 million surplus from last year's budget. Commissioners OK'd a $1 million budget increase this year over what Nugent's department actually spent last year. Come to your own conclusion.
Make no mistake, county government has taken hits in the past year by not replacing certain positions and adding 10 furlough days for many employees this year.
However, the problem is far greater than the sacrifices made. The proverbial writing is on the wall.
In the past 10 years, county government has more than doubled the amount of property taxes it collects. From 1999 through 2007, the county's property tax collections jumped an incredible 171 percent, from $37.6 million to $90.5 million.
County government's general fund budget, which property taxes help fund, soared from about $85 million to about $125 million in the past six years.
Unless there are dramatic cuts made during the current budget year, the 2010-11 budget process could turn into a bloodbath.
With the five constitutional officers invited to Friday's meeting, we'll be interested to see who emerge as leaders in this difficult process and who act as roadblocks.