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American Enterprise Bank

‘Sense of the board’ needed on cuts in next year’s budget

There’s a time-honored practice used by Congress that conveys the sentiment of a majority of members. It’s not legislation and it’s not binding, merely an expression of the will of members. It puts the House and Senate on record.

It’s call a Sense of Congress resolution.

Now that the new year is underway, it’d be a good time for the Baker County Commission to consider what we’ll call a Sense of the Commission resolution.

The board should go on the record soon, a full half-year before 2012-13 budget deliberations begin, on what it expects from its department chiefs and from the county’s five constitutional officers.

How about this? A ten percent reduction from the 2011-12 budget approved last fall — across the board, every department.

The goal is to avoid a debate again this fall over whether — and how much — the county can dip into a reserve fund that has shrunk from $12 million three years ago to about half that.

The county board should take the position, early this year with its Sense of the Commission resolution, that the surplus is untouchable. Further, the surplus will be used for emergencies only, and the fact that various departments and constitutional officers say they “can’t” cut ten percent does not constitute an “emergency.”

And in that vein, the fact that the Gainesville-based judicial circuit insists it needs more space and the county should proceed with a new administration building off-site is not an “emergency” either.

The judges, no slouches when it comes to equipping themselves with the best that money can buy, should have to wait until elected county board members decide they can afford a new building.

The “ten percent” suggestion is based loosely on the fact that the board raided reserves for $2.2 million last fall to balance a $27.4 million budget, as it had to do the previous year.  Indeed, the commission may have to ask for more than ten percent this summer, but it’s a fair start.

It will signal that the board is serious about at least that level of reduction.

Making it ten percent “across the board” is the only fair way to insure that all share equally in the effort, though obviously the dollar amounts will differ greatly between departments. For the sheriff’s budget, it translates into over $3 million; for the elections supervisor a small fraction of that.

For “fee-based” offices like the clerk and tax collector, the accounting is a bit different but the goal is similar — a reduction in spending of ten percent.

And the commission should make it clear that the carving will begin at the “approved” 2011 figures, not from proposed 2012-13 spending. Thus a “base line” is a true base line.

Officials need to come to grips with a reality that has hit most of us in private business — cuts are painful and the dreaded “L” word (layoffs) unavoidable. The county’s two layoffs last fall at budget time were touted as proof the county was serious about spending cuts, but they were cursory.

Reductions sufficient to avoid dipping into the forbidden surpluses will mean job cuts — no way around it.

Commissioners should make it clear they are not going to get involved in the specifics of how departments and officers arrive at the ten percent figure. They know their departments best, and thus the decisions should be theirs and theirs alone.

If they pass the Sense of the Commission, board members should be prepared for political fallout. To that, an appropriate response would be: “Fine, get someone to run against me so they can get up on the stage with me and explain to voters how going further into the hole will be beneficial.”

Constitutional officers are likewise in a corner. They will cry “cuts in services” but no one honestly believes that will result. If they cut services to spite the commission, there’s an immediate political risk to them, and the last thing any of them seeks is an opponent arguing the other side. They’d do a lot more than ten percent to protect their jobs.

As for the sheriff, whose budget gobbles up $3.6 million of the total $27.4 county outlay, he has appeal rights outside of the commission. He can go over the board’s head to the Florida Cabinet — all Republicans fighting the same battle on the state level (the sheriff’s a Democrat).

It shouldn’t get to that point. All tax-supported agencies, whether led by a constitutional officer or county department head, realize the commission has a serious responsibility here. And the board has a constituency that is not anxious for further budget balancing using reserves.

Now’s the time to stake a position, to adopt a Sense of the Commission and stick to it.

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