Guest opinion: Lee County has opportunity to balance its budget
This is the first opportunity Lee County government has had in four years to balance the budget. Between now and when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, there will be much media attention and information about proposed reductions in services as we work to eliminate a $34 million deficit.
When I was hired as county manager July 1, I had each county department propose reductions that would affect the fewest number of people. With that in mind, we realize that several of our larger departments will be affected more because they use more of the general fund, which is local government’s largest fund. It’s not surprising that the people who receive those services would feel the effects more than anyone else. Here are some updates to keep in mind:
* Extension Services: Since the initial budget-reduction proposal went to Commissioners for consideration at workshops, Lee County and University of Florida / IFAS Extension have had positive discussions related to continuing to provide Lee County Extension Services programming, and both county and UF staff believe these discussions will lead to an agreement for Lee County commissioners to consider Wednesday at the first budget hearing.
* Previous budget reduction models presented to commissioners at budget workshops showed a significant cut to UF / IFAS Extension offices here. Lee County staff and UF administrators have agreed to integrate the Extension offices with Lee County Parks & Recreation, and through this consolidation the county will realize a significant cost savings while being able to maintain essential services to Lee County taxpayers who use Extension Services. The reductions we need remain, but many of the services are restored.
* LeeTran: Route 60, which serves FGCU and San Carlos Park, was partially funded by a state grant that no longer exists. That caused us to evaluate its cost and effectiveness it is one of LeeTran’s least-used routes and trimming it could save the General Fund $120,475.
* The rest of the reductions to LeeTran are common-sense moves eliminate some service after 6 p.m., service on national holidays and seasonal services. Even though much attention has been given to the potential elimination of Pine Island’s sole once-a-week route, Route 160 doesn’t withstand a cost-benefit test.
* Human Services: Partnering for Results program funding cuts will impact direct services in the community by requiring agencies that are not funded to reduce their services. Lee County funding would only support 25 percent of the total program cost, which should not result in elimination of services. Family Self Sufficiency services, which are provided directly by Human Services, will be reduced as well. However, the remaining funding is anticipated to provide assistance to 410 households.
Budgeting is a process. In my 30 years in government, I’ve never seen a submitted budget proposal become the final budget, and the process always causes angst. Here at Lee County government, we usually only hear from people who expect to experience service cuts. We would like to hear from people who are interested in a balanced budget.
As the hearings happen Wednesday, Sept. 4, and Sept. 18, please keep in mind that for us to provide the services a county needs to provide, Lee County will need to use its available funds – and in this case General Funds for the greatest good for the most residents.
Roger Desjarlais is Lee County Manager