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Managing Money: Our Tax Money

By Staff | Oct 13, 2010

When dollars are short at home and ends don’t meet, money is managed very carefully. Why not do the same when managing our larger home — Lee County? I speak from experience as a former Chief Budget Analyst for 79 cities who approved the East Massachusetts transportation budget.

Hoarding resources isn’t respected in families. Why should it be respected in our county government? Every value in our society teaches us that people matter more than institutions, and that government exists to serve the people — “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” People here are experiencing unemployment rates, foreclosure rates and poverty rates far above the national average. There’s a 33 percent increase in those seeking mental health services largely due to the economy. People need to keep their money and the economy needs a boost to re-start.

Yet the majority block on the County Commission did not tell their staff to find ways to cut taxes by one mill — by $53 million. Why not?

$53 million sounds like a lot until one realizes that it fits within a $2.3 billion budget. It’s a little over 2 percent of the entire county budget. Businesses, families and seniors have cut far more than 2 percent in this recession. In fact, if you added the cuts the Commissioners made from services to keep the same tax rate, you’d be looking at a 4 percent cut. Most people in this county have cut far more than 4 percent from their budgets.

There are many ways this tax cut could have been made without long-term harm to county operations had the staff been directed to focus on the entire $2.3 billion budget and not just $374 million of it — not just 16 percent of the budget. However, by only focusing on this 16 percent, it’s been easier to frighten people away from asking for tax cuts. The diversionary tactic to threaten to cut even the meager amounts we spend on compassion programs is unconscionable. The county only spends $4.1 million on not-for-profit compassion programs. That’s not even one-quarter of 1 percent of this budget. Many people of faith in this county have not only tightened their personal belts, but they still manage to give 10 percent of their budgets to compassion programs. Hoarding taxpayer money is not acceptable. It’s reasonable, possible, and essential to have returned $53 million to the taxpayers as a part of the County’s alleged commitment to help re-start our economy.

Within the untouched 84 percent of the budget, there are many ways to have found tax cut dollars.

Year End Balances come from jobs not filled, grants received, etc. They become Opening Fund Balances — another pot of mostly undesignated reserves. The Sheriff knows that. He gave back $2 million without pain. The majority of the County Commissioners could have returned money from last year’s savings to the taxpayer, also without pain.

Investment management can result in more interest income and less interest expense. The City Manager in Cape Coral recently did just that by implementing changes that will result in that city earning $3 million more on only $132 million investment. Can’t the County do that with its $762 million in reserves plus all the other money not yet needed for cash flow?

Debt management cuts costs. Why haven’t the majority of the Commissioners asked the staff to restructure County debt when rates are low?

Energy conservation resulted in significant savings in Bonita, in other governments across Florida, and in family budgets. Why haven’t the majority of the Commissioners pushed beyond the innovative programs to implement a policy to turn up the AC, insulate better, and cut some lights?

Policy decisions give direction on what is priority if one cares about saving money. Why is the Fleet Management Department buying furniture this year? Why not tighten the policy on take-home cars when, in the private sector, employees pay for their own cars? How often is it necessary to replace vehicles? Why spend tax dollars on fertilizers that pollute when the City of Sanibel manages to keep lovely vegetation without fertilizer? How about deferring or canceling some capital projects?

County purchasing power is enormous. Combine it with other public entities — cities, constitutional officers, the school district and hospital. It is said that the county alone spends 85 percent more than national public sector average on health premiums. Why haven’t the majority of the Commissioners insisted that we not approve contracts to purchase services or products until the price is reasonable? Our buying power is enormous. Why be so lax with taxpayer money?

This is just a starter list on how to return one mill, $53 million, to the people who live and work in Lee County. Why didn’t the majority of Commission vote to “right-size” our County budget?