Budget balancing act requires public's voice

Published August 2, 2007

The Pasco County Commission has grabbed headlines as it wrestles with trying to be equally adept at pinching pennies and predicting the future. It is trying to balance public needs with available resources while still wondering what will happen in January when voters may demand further restrictions on government spending.

The commission has held one workshop, ordered cuts in spending under their own control and will seek to negotiate cuts in proposed budgets from constitutional officers. It has adopted a tentative tax rate for the coming fiscal year that reflects a property tax cut with anticipation of more reductions. Public hearings are scheduled for September.

But the local government that residents actually pay more to in property taxes, the Pasco School Board, has avoided a similar exercise. Its difficult work lies ahead as state-required spending cuts are expected next month after lawmakers attempt to reconcile their own state budget with lower-than-expected sales tax revenues.

Tuesday evening, the Pasco School Board approved a tentative millage rate that is 4 percent above the rollback rate, but an actual reduction of .201 mills that will result in a $40 reduction in taxes collected from a home valued at $200,000 after exemptions.

But unlike the County Commission, the School Board identified spending cuts that won't translate into additional tax savings for property owners. To make up for expected cuts in promised state aid, the district could end up trimming salary and benefit increases to employees since payroll accounts for the lion's share of the district's $537-million general fund. Overall, the district has a $1.2-billion budget to educate more than 65,000 students including more than 1,200 new students expected to enroll this year.

So far there has been scant public input from board members about where savings might be realized. Chairwoman Marge Whaley acknowledged Tuesday most of the money already is allocated on programs and that the board should keep budget cuts out of the classroom.

The last time board members had to make unanticipated budget cuts (2003), the district raised athletic fees, cut middle school and high school sports teams, eliminated field trips, closed the popular Energy and Marine Center in Port Richey and cut 94 jobs.

Tuesday evening, the current board adopted its tentative tax rate after receiving no public comment. It is understood that budget hearings usually aren't priorities for folks who are busy juggling their professional and personal lives, but we are still obliged to remind residents that now is the time to be heard on these important money matters. If you wait until the final public hearing in September, your two-cents about penny-pinching or spending policies might be of even lesser value.

Some residents are content to trust board members and Superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff scour the budget for savings. Their absence from board meetings bears out that observation. But for those who are less trusting, or have ideas of their own, now is the time to speak up. The board accepts unscheduled public comment at each of its meetings and it will meet Aug. 7, Aug. 21 and Sept. 4 before the final budget hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11.

Asking questions, offering suggestions or registering complaints when the process is in its flexible stage, presents residents with a much better opportunity to influence the outcome.

And the outcome is always better when the public fulfills its role in the process.