tampabay.com

Realistic goals, ideas are great place to start

By Times editorial
Published March 12, 2007


Early spring is the time of great optimism and expectations. Big league baseball players and their fans go to sleep with dreams of pennants dancing in their heads. College basketball fanatics prepare for March Madness and the championship that follows. Golfers salivate over lush greens peeking from the brown sod. Even the calendar can't wait to get going, pushing clocks ahead by one hour.

And in Citrus County, our county commissioners meet to set goals for the coming year. Every vexing problem has a simple solution, all projects are possible, money is there for the asking.

Alas, reality is not so kind. Only one team wins the World Series. Sixty-three of the 64 college teams return to campus disappointed. The greens humble even the best golfers.

And commissioners' goals often go unfulfilled.

There were encouraging signs during this year's goals session, however, that this batch of commissioners may be more successful than their predecessors.

For starters, the commissioners seem to grasp that they will not have unlimited buckets of money at their disposal. The gravy train of the past few years has been derailed, and the commissioners have adjusted their rhetoric and aspirations.

"Zero-based budgeting" has become the buzz phrase. This means starting each year with a blank slate instead of taking last year's spending plan and simply adding more to it.

This is a commonsense way of managing money, something that families and businesses do routinely. The county has talked about this concept for years, but now it appears as if commissioners are serious about making it happen.

Keep in mind, this applies to only those departments under the commissioners' direct control. The constitutional officers, including the sheriff, craft their own budgets and the commissioners, obligated to fund these budgets, can only ask for restraint.

Taxpayers will see during the upcoming budget process whether these other elected officials have heard the public's cries for relief.

Commissioners mentioned major problems and offered specific solutions. They recognized the need for more affordable housing in the county and raised the idea of using county-owned property, such as the former Betz Farm, to help. They talked about establishing a community land trust and other options.

The board also went into detail about how to find money for essential water and sewer projects. Commissioner Dennis Damato proposed a monthly assessment of $2.08 per parcel to generate $3.3-million each year for such a fund. There will be debate over this notion, as has occurred with other versions of a countywide assessment, but at least there is a specific idea to consider.

The board tossed around several interesting ways of handling government space needs, such as using so-called concreteables instead of site-built construction, allowing employees to work from home and staggering hours to get the most use out of existing buildings. We strongly encourage the commissioners to stay on these paths; there are savings to be found here.

Over the course of several hours, the commissioners had ample opportunity to float numerous ideas, with some having better chances than others of being adopted. But unlike previous years, the projects mentioned were realistic. There was not a water theme park among them.

The next steps - prioritizing the goals, finding the funding and directing staff toward making the dreams come true - will be the hard part. As it always is.

Remember, these are just goals and suggestions. Every year, commissioners put forth their wish lists and if they are lucky, a handful are actually achieved.

Zero-based budgeting, for example, has been mentioned before, as have space-needs options, stormwater drainage plans and a host of other ideas that re-emerged last week.

Commissioners should not start taking bows quite yet simply because they have made proposals. Come back for the applause once something has been accomplished.

Talking about capping the budget is great; actually holding the line on spending is better. Raising the idea of using concreteables is fine, albeit fairly late in the game; meeting with officials from the school district and the county jail who have been using this new technology for some time is better.

The hope is that the commissioners will continue to work together for progress, that they will drop whatever animosities may linger from previous years, and that they will stay grounded in reality.

The people of Citrus County will support reasonable, well-explained efforts to improve needed services as long as they see that the elected officials are being frugal stewards of the public dollars. Setting and achieving realistic goals is the best way to earn that trust and support.