The budget squeeze play
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published April 8, 2007
The annual budget process has begun in earnest for local governments in the Tampa Bay area. Months earlier than usual, local officials are arguing about spending, fretting about tax rates and scheduling public budget workshops.
The lingering sting from last year’s tax protests is part of the reason, but officials also are watching with dread the Legislature’s talk of local government spending caps and mandatory local property tax rate rollbacks to 2002 or 2003 levels. Nothing has been decided in Tallahassee, but many local governments, fearing big cuts to their revenue streams, already are gearing up for a slowdown in the money train. These self-analyses are generally healthy exercises, and a little more self-awareness a year or two ago about the consequences of spending sprees fueled by soaring property values could have calmed some of the demands for relief now.
The Pinellas Park city manager last week instituted a “soft” freeze on hiring of administrative staff for now. The Pinellas County Commission has switched to zero-based budgeting and created a budget Web site for the public (www.pinellascounty.org/budget) . Clearwater appointed a Budget Task Force of residents to suggest spending reductions, and City Council members already are debating cuts in dollars devoted to recreation, cultural activities and nonprofits. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has been working on alternative tax relief plans for lawmakers to consider that would be more palatable to cities.
Not every local government thinks the sky is falling. In Hillsborough County, for example, city and county officials have chosen to wait and see. Neither the county nor the city of Tampa has seriously considered what areas of the budget to cut, whether to postpone major capital spending or whether any change in the tax structure or rate will require increasing local fees. Officials said they are concerned but that drawing up a hit list is premature.
Floridians struggling to cope with rising taxes and insurance rates have demanded a new level of accountability from their local officials and a seat at the table during budget preparations. A more vigorous and open examination of government spending is healthy. And if local governments demonstrate spending discipline now, the Legislature may be less inclined to require draconian cuts that fail to consider local needs.
To do this right, though, local governments should not reflexively draw down important reserve accounts or summarily slice off popular quality-of-life programs. The revenue crisis in Florida demands creative, long-term solutions. City and county officials who don’t add consolidation of government services, group purchasing and outsourcing, for example, to their budget-cutting tool box are just dreaming that the revenue issue will dissipate soon.
The sky isn’t falling, but the situation is serious. Officials who control local government budgets should be more closely scrutinizing line items, developing alternative spending plans, renegotiating contracts and seeking new partnerships that benefit the bottom line. They have a key role to play in keeping Florida an affordable and appealing place to live.
[Last modified April 8, 2007, 12:47:18]
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