The pain of leadership

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By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

“You can't squeeze blood from a turnip”

- Anonymous

The Levy County Commission's budget workshop this week was painful.

The most painful moment came when County Coordinator Freddie Moody observed that the proposed 2010-2011 budget of $57.039 million is only slightly smaller than the 2005-06 budget of $57.046 million.

Just a few years ago, when $25,000 bought an acre of land, the budget hit a high of $70 million.

In the three years since, the economic bust vaporized $13 million.

While an acre of land can be had for $8,000, the cost of everything else — gas, food, clothing, etc. — has continued a rocky road to new heights.

At the same time, we are all moving down the ladder to prosperity. Spending is frozen. Lunch comes from home. And generic soda is tasty.

Everyone knows someone who has been laid off, gone without a pay raise for years, had their work hours cut, been forced into furloughs.  

Chances are that someone is not a Levy County employee. While the employees have not had a raise for three years and are looking at a fourth, there have been no layoffs or furloughs. But they have, for the most part, given up overtime, county vehicles to drive home, cell phones and resorted to buying office supplies at Walmart.  That's a tribute to the county employees.

While they are making do, the Sheriff who said he was so broke last year he would have to park cars and lay off folks, instead found some unspent money socked away for emergencies and spent it on new cars and equipment. The chief deputy left, and with a little dab from the unspent money tree, he handed out a 3 percent pay raise for deputies.

It has stuck in the craw of county employees. That much was evident as the department heads marched up one by one to say the workers are grateful to have a job, but could they have a raise as well?

While one said she favors a one-time $600 cost of living adjustment, others bandied about the f-word — furloughs — and the l-word — layoffs. But all the talk went nowhere.

And, of course, there was talk about the state mandating the county do this and that but not providing the financial support to accomplish it.

Moody, who asked several times for a decision on millage, got none. Two commissioners were attending other meetings, so the decision was put off until all five could go on the record with their votes.

The current rate is 7.4212 mills, but the county can go with the roll back rate — the amount the commission can charge to raise the same amount of money as this year — of 7.8436 mills.

That guarantees that property owners — with the exception of those in Williston whose values rose this year — cannot say their taxes went up. That's helpful in an election year.

It also guarantees no one gets laid off so car payments, mortgages and bills get paid.

But that is only half of the painful tax dilemma.

There's also special assessments meant to fund fire, EMS and solid waste departments. The commission whacked them last year.

There's not much left to whack, and it's a joke to pretend they provide support for the services mandated by residents.  Every year the commission has to dip a little general fund money to support those departments.

No serious heed was paid to Commissioner Danny Stevens' calls last year, and on Monday, to set a proper assessment that pays the bills of the departments. It's an idea worth serious discussion.

With the budget at 2005 levels, it might be time to consider how we fund county government and the services we expect it to provide.

It's painfu,l but the commissioners — each of whom asked for the job — surely knows they will have to spread the pain around.

Lou Elliott Jones is the editor of the Chiefland Citizen.  She can be reached at 352-493-4796.