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It's time for the annual brouhaha over budget

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By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


The calendar shows that it's time for Citrus County to adopt its budget for the coming year. Which means that the county and Property Appraiser Ron Schultz are renewing their annual funding feud.

The Hatfields and the McCoys have nothing on these guys.

This year, the fussing is over furniture. Schultz has budgeted $400,000 for new equipment for his staff and those who work for the tax collector to use when they move into the not-yet-built office building on the Stovall site in Inverness.

That's a 31.3 percent increase in his budget, at a time when the county is trying to hold spending increases to 4 percent.

Depending on who is talking, the problem is either a stubborn elected official who insists on putting his wishes ahead of the general good of the taxpayers or a county staff and board of commissioners who are chafed because they can't control a constitutional officer.

As in most squabbles like this, there are elements of truth in both arguments. There are also plenty of reasons why common sense should prevail. It's hard to see how the public benefits from these annual battles, which have become an almost laughable sideshow to the mundane task of allocating tax dollars.

Each year, Schultz and the county seem to disagree on something. In 1997, the county appealed his budget over a $31,000 staff expenditure, only to drop the issue months later, saying it didn't want to waste any more time and money.

In 1999, it was nearly $600,000 in a data processing fund. Later that year, the county again appealed Schultz's budget, this time over pay raises for his staff that exceeded those of county employees in other offices. That appeal, too, was dropped.

The next year, both sides knocked heads over $63,000 in retirement contributions for Schultz's staff. Last year, Schultz said that if the county didn't get more space for his folks in the Stovall building, he would budget an extra $130,000 so that he could rent office space elsewhere.

Today, it's desks and chairs.

The real rub is the way the process works. Schultz, as a constitutional officer, sends his budget to the state Department of Revenue for review and approval; the county is obliged to provide the money.

Commissioners and staff, naturally, are not thrilled that the only role they have in the process is writing the checks. Sure, they can appeal the budget to the Department of Revenue, which is not likely to reverse its approval. The county then can appeal to the governor and Cabinet, but that is costly, and governors don't like getting involved in these local disputes.

Schultz is well aware of how the process works and points to the political independence this gives the office. He was out of town last week when his budget was before the commissioners, but in previous years, he's made his stance clear. Here is a sampling of his comments:

"There's a propensity for the Board of County Commissioners to want to control me. They can't."

"The Department of Revenue is my master. I can't also attempt to pacify the Board of County Commissioners because invariably I will get into a conflict that the Department of Revenue wants one thing and the Board of County Commissioners wants another."

County commissioners question the budget process but always "bang their heads against a brick wall. That is a territory that the property appraiser must defend."

And so on.

The latest round started in April, with a letter from County Administrator Richard Wesch to the constitutional officers about the budgeting process. Saying commissioners don't want to boost the millage rate, Wesch opened the bidding at 4 percent for budget increases.

The response was a communications miracle. Four of the officers -- Schultz, Tax Collector Janice Warren, Clerk of Circuit Court Betty Strifler and Elections Supervisor Susan Gill -- sent virtually identical letters to Wesch. Imagine that!

Their letters were primers on how the budget process should work, not exactly what Wesch wanted to hear. He wrote back that he was "taken aback by the tone and content" of the letters. After some chatter about budgets, Wesch said he didn't want to get into "a protracted letter-writing contest" and invited them to discuss the matter.

While the others backed away from the tussle, Wesch and Schultz kept at it, sending each other several more letters, each laced with thinly veiled, condescending jabs. Nothing of substance changed, and last week, the property appraiser's budget went before the commissioners, where Commission Chairman Jim Fowler damned it as "offensive."

Commissioners said that in order to buy the furniture, other county needs would not be fully funded. Among the projected victims are a lake restoration program and upgrades to a center for senior citizens.

While one can ask whether these are the only cuts that can be made in a $133-million county budget, the larger question is, Why has it come to this? Is it too much to ask these stewards of public dollars to conduct the public's business in a reasonable and cooperative manner?

For Wesch and the commissioners, the silver lining may be that Schultz is in the final years of his term and has announced his impending retirement. For Schultz, this allows him to do and say what he pleases, free from any concerns about political backlash.

Ultimately, Schultz will get his furniture money because it's not worth the effort to fight it. The county, meanwhile, has said it will change the budget process, putting its needs first before entertaining requests from the constitutional officers.

That won't eliminate future budget battles, which means we can expect our government types to continue to bicker like tots in a sandbox. Except that they're fussing over our money, not a toy truck or a plastic shovel.

I hope the new Stovall building has a lot of corners in it so that we can place the various parties in them for time out.

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