We are in the fourth year of local governments cutting back. And according to numbers from Sarasota County, the city of Sarasota and the Sarasota County School District, the cuts really have been substantial.
When governments are forced to make cuts, because they have absolutely no other choice, then and only then will they do so. That truism is why some people believe the only way to keep government from growing and growing is to “starve the beast” with tax and revenue caps. If governments were able to control themselves such a step would not be required, but experience suggests it is the only way to slow or stop an insatiable beast.
But here is the brutal, honest and telling question to be answered in the wake of the recent cuts: Has the public noticed any difference?
Between the three local governments, more than 1,000 positions have been eliminated during the past three years by not filling open jobs or by laying off employees. The savings to taxpayers is more than $66 million annually.
And the state of Florida has cut billions and eliminated thousands of jobs.
More cuts are expected at all three governments this year. (Washington, D.C. will continue to grow because with deficit spending allowed, taxpayers have found no way to starve the most voracious beast in the land.)
The pain of losing a job cannot be minimized. Obviously, those local employees laid off and their families sure noticed. But on the customer side of government, has anyone who pays for government services really noticed the loss of $66 million in spending?
Personally, I haven’t seen anything. Now it is true, I don’t encounter government services too much as a resident — mostly using roads funded by gas taxes, the occasional library trip and the knowledge that law enforcement and firefighters are immediately available. But otherwise, like most people I know, I just keep sending in large amounts of money and not really seeing anything.
County Administrator Jim Ley said that the county has received “some” complaints from trimmed-back library hours, diminished bus routes, removal of grass in medians to save mowing costs and somewhat slower customer response times. But he says it is not a lot.
And that is with 310 fewer county employees.
Ley says that being forced to do with less is not necessarily a bad thing. A relative fiscal conservative among the fraternity of municipal administrators, Ley took the opportunity of the recession to reorganize the county, scrubbing out management levels and reducing management and supervisory positions by 32%. Some well-paid positions — salaries topping $90,000 — disappeared.
The reorganization also allowed the county to restructure its operations and maintenance functions, eliminating $6 million in heavy equipment and reducing the light-duty fleet.
The city of Sarasota cut 156 positions and also reorganized. City Manager Bob Bartolotta combined 13 departments into eight and eliminated some high-cost positions — including captains and lieutenants behind desks in the police department. Like Ley, Bartolotta said the city has become leaner and more efficient.
“We’re finding we can do with less,” he said.
The school district reports the largest cuts of 539 employees at $35 million. Much of that came about because of student-enrollment declines during the recession. The district is hobbled more than other local governments by the state setting the tax rate and imposing endless rules and regulations.
Most of the district savings were achieved through cuts primarily in the classroom — 417 positions in the classroom and guidance and media rooms, 361 of which were teachers and teacher aides. Nine assistant principal positions were eliminated, along with 18 bus drivers, 27 custodians and 26 district clerk and technology positions.
But the district did what the other two governments have not, and that is ask voters to renew the one-mill school tax. School officials assured us during the referendum campaign that student achievement will stay high or improve.
The deep recession has proven a point better than any academic dissertation. Government can do with less, much less than the picture usually painted. How much more can yet be cut without the public really noticing much? We may find out as the economy seems to be pulling out of the recession, but property values will lag the recovery and the property assessments, on which taxes are levied, trail the values by a full year.
With sympathies to the government workers who have lost jobs, the best thing that has happened to local government in decades has been this economic downturn. Recession-driven starving of the beast is the one force of nature that has stopped the juggernaut of government growth — at least until the economy improves.
Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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