That was the message from Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to the commission during the first and maybe only workshop on his $3.96 billion operating budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
One highlight of Wednesday afternoon’s hour-long session was a plan to spend up to $20 million on unspecified projects across the county through the Hillsborough County Community Redevelopment Program.
The program, according to its official description, addresses “uneven growth patterns in under served areas of the county and brings together multiple community resources to areas to be determined by the board of county commissioners.”
Projects will improve quality of life, boost business opportunities and create jobs in selected regions.
Merrill said all county departments were asked to pare their budgets to the minimum without affecting services, resulting in a $1.4 million savings. The savings will go toward a $20 million bond issue to fund the redevelopment program.
Commissioners were urged to come up with ideas and present them to the county staff before the budget is finalized in September.
The county’s finances are robust enough to provide 4 percent pay raises for the second consecutive year, along with additional money for homeless programs and transportation.
After years of recession, fiscal hard times, layoffs and budget slashing measures, county government is rebounding, Merrill said, with renewed focuses on innovative delivery of county services.
“While we are cautiously optimistic, virtually all key economic indicators are moving in a positive direction,” Merrill said in a budget letter to the commission.
“Overall economic growth continues to gain momentum, home sales are up, the unemployment rate is down and annual area job gains topped 28,000 last year,” Merrill wrote.
He said the bond rating for the county remains unblemished, reserves are stable and the county “is poised to move forward confidently toward more prosperous years ahead.”
It’s quite a turn-around from 2010, when Merrill took over the administrator’s job and faced falling revenues and multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls.
He laid off hundreds of employees, making those who remained do more with less.
He stressed innovation and customer service and the county was able to maintain most government services without raising taxes.
Merrill listed some reasons for this year’s brimming coffers:
♦ Taxable property values have increased for the second consecutive year after five years of decline.
♦ Local sales tax revenues are rising about 5 percent annually.
♦ Annual metropolitan job growth topped 28,000.
♦ County unemployment declined to 5.6 percent in March down from a high of 12 percent in 2010.
“After almost six years of decline, sales tax revenue growth has returned to 20-year historical averages,” Merrill wrote in the letter. “Taxable property values continue to increase for the second year in a row and the county is in a position to reduce the tax millage rate for the 22nd year in a row.
“We are fiscally sound.”