Count Les Miller out in joining some of his colleagues on the Hillsborough County who have talked about cutting the budget from some of the constitutional offices in Hillsborough in order to find more funding for transportation.
“Where are you going to take the money from?” the County Commission Chairman asked rhetorically on Monday before HART’s monthly board meeting, after he was asked what he thought of the proposals floated by two of his colleagues – Sandy Murman and Victor Crist – in recent days following their rejection of the Go Hillsborough plan.
Crist has been more specific, calling for a possible 2.5 percent cut out of general revenues that would include cuts to the sheriffs department, property appraiser and clerk of the court. Murman released her own plan last fall, but added on Friday that she was considering asking those constitutional offices to cut back as well.
“That’s their prerogative,” County Administrator Mike Merrill acknowledged on Friday. But he said that he’s provided numerous presentations to the board – the last being on April 21 – on how there really isn’t that much available in the current budget that could be set aside for transportation.
“It really is a policy decision because, depending how much of that limited part of the budget can be cut, those are all the departments that provide direct services,” Merrill says, specifically mentioning programs for parks, children and seniors.
He also says that money may not be there there.
“The sheriff can appeal (a budget cut) to the governor if he chooses, and Pat Frank’s office has been cut consistently by the Legislature. You can’t really control the Property Appraiser and Tax Collector because their fees are commissions paid on collection of taxes, so practically speaking, when you whittle it all down to what’s really available money it’s also the places that provide services for people,” Merrill says (Frank recently wrote that the Legislature cut her Clerk of the Courts budget by $1 million this year for the ninth straight year, with more to follow next year).
During Wednesday night’s four-hour-plus public hearing on whether to put the Go Hillsborough sales-tax referendum on the 2016 November ballot, critics said that the county does have the money in their budget to pay for some of the projects listed in the plan, saying it only spends roughly 3 percent of all general revenues on transportation.
Merrill begs to differ, and says that what critics fail to note is how there is a need for more services than ever, as Hillsborough’s population continues to expand.
“We’ve grown more in the last two years than any other county in the state of Florida, more people, more service, not less service. I’ve sucked up $350 million worth of lost revenue during the recession without reducing service. I’ve cut the cost of government by nine percent in the last six years, so where is that going to come from? You know, so just tell me where you want to cut it, and we’ll cut it, and then explain to people why your services are going away,” he says.
And he doesn’t seem to cut a lot of slack for those who argue otherwise, saying that they’ve never gone through our budget, “they just make accusations out of thin air.”
“And it’s easy to do that when you don’t have to run a county and balance a budget. If they would take the time to sit down and go thru the budget and learn, maybe they would have a different opinion, but I’m just at the point where people just make stuff up.”
Part of Murman’s proposal from last fall included raising the gas tax, a proposal that the Tampa Bay Sierra Club came out in support of last summer. Merrill frowns upon that as a legitimate funding resource.
“If the problem is $150 million a year just to upgrade our transportation system, which is the number we’ve been using, then $27 million in gas taxes only scratches the surface,” he says. “It’s a declining revenue source and most of it would go to the unincoporated areas and really doesn’t help the cities and it has limited uses under state statute.”
Gas taxes are allocated based on population, so 2/3rds of that new revenue would go to the outlying counties, and one-third only to Tampa.
The Go Hillsborough proposal called for a half-cent sales tax for 30 years that would have brought in $117 million annually. The County Commission had earlier approved a list of $905 million worth of transportation projects that they would work on during the tax’s first decade.
“We’ve talked about this over and over again with the board, and it’s their decision,” Merrill said with some resignation in his voice. “My job is to carry out their decision and do it the best I can without affecting service. But, it’s going to affect services.”