The Sarasota County Commission’s freshly approved 2012 budget looks more like a bubble correction than Draconian cutbacks of critical services, at least when viewed through a 10-year lens.
In 2002, before the enormous run-up in real estate prices poured money into county coffers, Sarasota County’s budget was $808 million. The budget approved for next year is $870 million, $62 million more than in 2003, even after five years of reductions. As we know, population growth in the county was minimal in that time, and there was an actual population decline during the recession.
At the same time, productivity of the average American worker improved, largely on the strength of technological advances, meaning that there should be no noticeable loss of county services.
Was the county so terrible in 2003? Of course not. The problem is the perception driven by the boom. The county ran the budget up to $1.14 billion in 2007 — not based on need but based on the cash cow that real estate became temporarily. If there had been more spending restraint in those years, the cuts now would not appear as drastic as they may seem.
And looking at the cuts the commission made, with a few exceptions, the county is still not cutting basic necessities. Some of the main budget cuts that just are not that painful include:
• Closing the Selby and Jacaranda public libraries on Sundays and suspending the inter-library loan program. The library system will also be buying fewer new items. Sunday hours for libraries can hardly be considered a necessity.
• Reducing small recreation programs and events and putting off some equipment replacement and minor maintenance at parks. Recreational programs, by definition, often are luxuries for which users should pay.
The cut that could be considered more serious is the 5% reduction in primary care for people seeking discount medical work — if you consider offering health care a role for the county. Patients will have longer waits.
Another budget change was to increase bus fares from 75 cents to $1.25, which brings them up to par with surrounding counties and the state average. Hearings around the county brought nary a peep of opposition to the fare hikes.
As the real estate bubble that county government rode could not be sustained, so county government spending at those levels could not be sustained.
Despite the rhetoric, we have simply returned to more normal levels.
+ A tax by any other name
The fourth largest source of revenue in 2009 — behind property taxes, the half-cent sales tax and the infrastructure surtax — was the FPL franchise fee. This is the fee that FPL allegedly pays for the right to a quasi-monopoly on selling electricity in Sarasota County.
But this is a tax by another name. FPL has its rates set by the Florida Public Service Commission, an arm of the state. The PSC looks at all of the company’s costs and then sets the rates to provide a profit.
So FPL simply collects the franchise fee from consumers and gives it to Sarasota County government. If there were not a franchise fee, the rates would be lower.
Make no mistake. This is a tax on county residents.