Residents suggest priorities for budget
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
Dorothy Paust cares for her bedridden, 85-year-old husband at their Spring Hill home because she knows he gets the attention he needs there.
It's tiring, though, and services are costly, said Paust, 81. If the Hernando County Commission could include an elder day care center in next year's county budget, she suggested, it would be money well spent and appreciated.
"We all need some help if we are caregivers," Paust wrote.
She's not alone in her request. The Hernando Times asked readers what priorities they believed the County Commission should set for fiscal 2002, which begins Oct. 1, and the No. 1 response was for a county-sponsored elder day care center.
Also at the top were enhanced code enforcement, continued road paving and repair, and support for a beautification program. Not surprisingly, with the proposals for more spending came calls for budget cuts.
"Instead of looking for things to buy or ways to spend our tax dollars, I think we should be looking for ways to cut some of the unnecessary things that we don't really need," wrote Wilbur Martin of Spring Hill, listing economic development and employee raises as examples. "If the department heads were to spend as if it were their own money, I guarantee their budgets would be smaller."
Commissioners, who annually lament the lack of community voices at budget time, applauded the availability of a new set of views. The responses will play a beneficial role in setting the future agenda, Commissioner Nancy Robinson said.
County Administrator Paul McIntosh agreed. "In general, we are interested in public input and opinions about what they think county government should be doing," he said. "It sounds like most of the areas we've identified already and are incorporating into the budget."
Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said she already has begun looking for grants to support an elder center. She also pledged her backing for improved roads and code enforcement.
"Those areas are probably the ones I'm most committed to," Whitehouse said.
Department heads submitted their budget requests about a month ago; analysts have been reviewing them since then. The proposals seem reasonable based on need, Budget Officer George Zoettlein said, but initial projections indicate that requested expenditures would exceed revenue by about $6-million.
"We're trying to find the padding," Zoettlein said.
The administration will give commissioners a budget plan with flexibility so they can make choices, McIntosh said. "I'm not sure what we're going to recommend."
More than 50 readers offered recommendations, including pitches for more sidewalks, a user-friendly mass transit system and park improvements.
One reader suggested the construction of a community swimming pool, a project that has sunk under the weight of opposition for the past two years. A handful wanted the County Commission to prop up the ailing public school system, which has its own tax base but major financial problems.
Jim Travers of Brooksville said he couldn't emphasize in strong enough terms the need for the county to clean up streets and neighborhoods. It's an area generally monitored by the Code Enforcement Department, which has requested two new officers for the coming year.
"The streets of Hernando County are a disgrace," Travers wrote. "There is trash everywhere. The grass is cut every two or three months, never trimmed. We try to attract new industry, and the county is an eyesore. Spend some money on making it look better."
Making Hernando County more attractive topped the list for Suzette Balaskas of Spring Hill, too.
"I feel Hernando County needs five or six code enforcement officers to keep Hernando an appealing county to live in," Balaskas wrote. "Raise everyone's taxes $25 to $30 a year and make Hernando a knockout place to live!!"
Of equal importance to Ione Plis of Spring Hill was road repairs. She recommended the county keep the roads not only neat, but also well maintained and paved.
While the county is at it, Shari Mulvey of Brooksville said, commissioners should take a look at the "forgotten" limerock roads in parts of the county and think about paving them. Along similar lines, Jill Maden of Spring Hill said the county needs to become more pedestrian-friendly, especially with sidewalks and crosswalks.
Many readers had concerns about the county's growth and recommended that the commission plan carefully for the future.
"In order for any business to succeed, it must have a business plan," wrote Sandy Windham of Spring Hill. "Do our county commissioners have any such plan or idea of what they would like to achieve or where they would like us to be in the next few years?"
Commissioners should not adopt new ordinances or regulations without adequate means of enforcing them, Windham suggested.
Art Wagner of Spring Hill said it appeared commissioners have done a good job spending taxpayer money so far. "Maybe more money should be spent on planning for the population increase involving water, roads and schools," he wrote.
A lack of water worried Thomas and Augusta Guarino of Weeki Wachee, who proposed that the commission focus on the desalination of water as a first priority. They also were among a group that questioned the commission's pledge of 5 percent raises for county employees.
"I think the people need a break," commented Thomas Sidor of Spring Hill. "The county just got a 5 percent raise."
But Patrick Zupo of Spring Hill, who works for the county utilities department, was among those who said employee raises -- perhaps above 5 percent -- are needed.
"I work in the heat, rain and whatever else. After taxes, I made $16,800. Pretty hard to raise a family of five on that money," Zupo wrote.
Jan Kalnbach of Brooksville offered several suggestions for spending, including additional money for the Dawn Center and for environmental protection.
"The money for these things should come from that which the county has been wasting on (the Economic Development Commission), publicly paid pet walk areas, median beautification and other expenses that are obviously less important to the public's long-term well being," Kalnbach wrote.
Guiding the decisions should be needs, not wants, said Sally Sevier of Brooksville. And those functions are few, she said.
County staffers will continue to prepare a budget for the commissioners through mid July, when the commission is set to have workshops on the proposals. The public budget hearings are set tentatively for Sept. 6 and 20.
Hernando County commissioners have said that their top budget priorities for fiscal 2002 are social services and code enforcement. The Hernando Times asked readers how they believe the commission should spend money in the general fund, and most were in agreement. Here are the top responses from the 55 readers who responded:
1. Elder day care center
2. Code enforcement
3. Road paving and repair
4. Beautification program
5. (tie) Employee raises
5. (tie) Social service programs
5. (tie) Budget cuts
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