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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Governments grow; Pasco delivers proof

The first draft of the latest Pasco County budget, including appendices, stretches 327 eye-glazing pages, and it probes such topics as interfund transfers, contingencies and object codes. It is, in other words, not what anyone would mistake for a beach read.

This is not to suggest it is poorly written. On the contrary. The prose portion, appearing above the signature of County Administrator Michelle Baker, does not lack for modest turns of phrase. This one is especially entertaining: “Departments are encouraged to be frugal and find the most cost effective means of delivering essential services.”

One would hope so.

That said, unless your taste runs to charts and graphs and the artistry of double-entry bookkeeping, Pasco’s proposed budget, pretty much like any governmental budget, is not something you’d choose to download to your tablet instead of the latest Stephen King or Diana Gabaldon. If, on the other hand, you are among the few hardy, wonkish souls planning to lug it on vacation, you may want to skip the rest, because there are spoilers ahead.

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The theme of the administrator’s proposed spending plan is not unfamiliar: Left unchecked by a vigilant constituent class, the tendency of government is to grow. Now, unlike many of my tea party friends, I will not say this is necessarily a terrible thing, especially at the local level, where public outlays tend to reflect both the established values and the contemporary mood of the electorate. When enough of us want more deputies, firefighters, code enforcement officers and librarians that’s exactly what we tend to get.

Well, as long as we demonstrate a willingness to pay for them, anyway. Isn’t that always the rub?

In Pasco’s proposed budget, the county administrator detects that willingness. Not in so many words, actually, because the headline on the fiscal plan is that it holds the millage rate — that is, the amount property owners pay per $1,000 of assessed value — at last year’s level. The fine print includes a new, if fractional, transportation line item that would mean a tax increase on property owners as an alternative to hiking the gas tax, or declining both and, presumably, steering around potholes for another year.

Anyway, back to our theme: Government grows.

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Baker recommends spending 3.1 percent more than last year, with the lion’s share going to raises for deputies and county workers, 1 percent per year for up to five years. There’s also money for an additional 45 full-time employees, mostly in code enforcement, economic development and parks maintenance. Detecting light at the end of our long economic tunnel, Baker says it’s time to stop squeezing employees who have survived the downturn and departments whose members have been doubling up.

That’s one argument, anyway. Then again, sometimes the tunnel’s light is a freight train.

Consider: At 6.5 percent, Pasco’s unemployment rate, while down almost two points from July 2013, lags Hillsborough (5.6) and Pinellas (5.7) counties, as well as Florida as a whole (6.2). In short, the moment is not yet right to cue up “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Nonetheless, pinched Pasco property owners carrying the ongoing burden of the highest tax rate in at least 10 years, plus assessments that are bouncing back, will search in vain for any recommendation about providing relief.

Moreover, the 3.1 percent boost is 35 percent higher than the year-over-year rise in the consumer price index (2.3 percent) and is roughly triple the county’s population increase (1.1 percent). On the other hand, the most recent figures for household income (2012) show a 3.6 percent year-over-year rise, prompting at least a couple of observations: First, even if they consider it undesirable, Pasco taxpayers might find Baker’s hike affordable. Second, rising incomes are proof not everybody in Pasco County works for a newspaper.

Anyway, as you prepare to be diverted by the beach, mountains or theme parks, I thought you should know what will be waiting for you when you get back.

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