The 36,000 people looking for jobs in Lee County need money. Thousands of seniors on fixed incomes who have seen their retirement funds shrink need money. Businesses need money to continue operating and to create jobs.
There’s money available now for the Commission to reduce the millage from 3.6506 to 2.6506 and to give people some $52.9 million in tax cuts plus make up for the property value decline. It would not be disruptive.
It’s time to stop dabbling on the edges, protecting the bureaucracy, and dismissing the people who pay the bills.
When taxpayers complain, the response is to threaten to cut the compassion items which constitute an extremely small percentage of the $374 million operating budget and $2 billion whole budget.
The clearest example of these threats is the plan to cut $1.6 million from bus routes needed by those who can’t afford cars. Coincidentally, once this transit money is cut, it will be available to fund the same $1.6 million “needed” to study a proposed fly-over at Veterans and Santa Barbara in Cape Coral — the new back door into the controversial Colonial Expressway that will be decided in December, after the election.
Other threats focus on a few million dollars “saved” by denying services to programs affecting children, or streetlights or sidewalks for kids in Lehigh, animal services, and increases to mental health and substance abuse programs that are required to meet increased demand caused by the recession. Demand for mental health services is up 33% in just one year and substance abuse (the cause of 70 percent of all child abuse) is also way up. In the long run, it’s far cheaper to fund these programs now than to pay the added criminal justice costs later.
The BOCC has a little over a week to approve the 2011 budget with a real tax cut. My proposed one mill cut is based on county documents, other public budget expert advice on use of “Beginning Fund Balances,” and my years of budget analysis experience. This seemingly dramatic reduction would not be destabilizing because it would not result in a need to raise millage next year. There is still enough fat to trim to balance any demands for the 2012 tax year as we stabilize this new “right-sized” budget.
The solution is remarkably easy. Dollars left over from 2010 become the “Beginning Fund Balance” for 2011. The 9/20/10 BOCC 2010-2011 Budget in the News Press projects that we will have $214,719.017 “Beginning Fund Balance” from prior year appropriations. In the News-Press chart it is simply called “Fund Balance Appropriated.” It is slightly more than the $206,773,421 estimated on July 2 to be left over on Sept. 30. This money is not officially part of the 2011 total revenues of $328,284,183 although it is available for 2011. In other words, 51.6 percent of the ad valorem dollars needed for 2011 expenditures is already in the bank—well over the usually accepted 20 percent “Beginning Fund Balance.”
Let’s be really conservative. Keep 75 percent in the “Beginning Fund Balance” line item. Keep some for cash in anticipation of revenue receipts, for continuing projects that may not have been added to 2011 budget, and for unexpected expenses not paid from reserves. Use only 25 percent of these funds.
And, one could use a small amount more of this “Beginning Fund Balance” to fund the above stated compassion programs. This money is not the reserves. It’s unspent money and some short term unpaid items left at end of current year. (Good for staff trying to make some cut backs over past 12 months.)
Use the mentioned 25 percent — or $52,951,186.92 of that $214 million “Beginning Fund Balance” — to reduce the 2011 millage from 3.6506 mills to 2.6506 mills. The BOCC can approve this cut when they vote on the budget—a tax reduction effective Oct. 1, 2010. This should be a permanent step toward fiscal responsibility.
Know that, as one with experience analyzing large public budgets, much more can be done to eliminate waste and duplication next year (2012). However, to set policies that start us toward tomorrow and provide ongoing full disclosure to the public, it will require getting a fresh start in January 2011. There should be no problem, even with further property valuation declines, in holding to a 2.6506 millage rate a year from now—maybe reducing the rate more. And county staff will be able to deliver core services more productively and less painfully than now. It’s time to get off the business-as-usual merry-go-round and move toward tomorrow.
I urge the current BOCC to do this for the public—now. It’s a small start toward effective budgeting, but a big help to the taxpayer. Let’s get it done!