Trim county budget with surgical precision

Sunday's column detailed what Lake County residents might expect to get in services after government budgets start anew on Oct. 1.

The short answer is: less than now.

Through the spring and summer, officials will be cutting budgets across the county, and the biggest of them all is the county government's budget.

This year, it's $416 million total, but the general fund, which holds the cash that operates all the traditional services residents expect, accounts for only about $157 million of it.

An early rough estimate is that Lake will take in about $9 million to $13.5 million less than it did this year. That means some items will have to be eliminated.

Sunday's column suggested that county commissioners divide the departments and begin going through each budget line by line, looking for things that government — or residents — can do without.

But rather than be ambushed by emotional ties as each particular program comes up, commissioners should start by setting priorities. And No. 1 on the list should be "services to residents." At the very tippy top should be services to the disabled, the elderly, children and veterans.

If a clear set of priorities is agreed on by all the commissioners, cutting the budget would be far less painful — and political.

Suggestions like the one that arose last week to close the library in Sorrento wouldn't even arise. Commissioners who even consider closing the library should ask themselves why it's being funded in the first place if people can get along just dandy without it.

Compare similar counties

An enlightening exercise for commissioners would be to look at counties with similar populations and property values. Marion, just to the north is not a bad comparison, as is Escambia, Florida's westernmost county in the Panhandle.

Each county has its own attributes and challenges, so making comparisons requires a little care. Take, for example, how each spends money on veterans.

Lake County has three employees and a part-time secretary to help veterans and act as a liaison to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Because the veterans budget is mixed in with mental-health counselors and assistance for the elderly, it's hard to estimate what is spent — a conservative guess would be just under $400,000 a year.

Marion County has eight employees and spends $482,874 to help veterans wade through the morass of federal regulations. Yet, Escambia coughs up a mere $15,000 to an outside agency to help its vets. What's with that?

A quick look at a map soon explains the discrepancy. Escambia has a military base — plus several other military installations. Services already are plentiful and close to residents.

The three counties, whose budgets fall with an 11-percent range of each other, have much in common when it comes to what they spend on — but then, all governments do. Their priorities, however, are different, and there are several places where it would behoove Lake to look more closely into how the other counties operate.

Spiffy Web sites

Take, for example, the geographic-information systems systems. All three have GIS systems, complex computer-generated maps and overlays that do everything from keep track of property to aid rescue workers in finding exact locations. Lake's system is the niftiest thing ever to play with — and anybody can go to the county's Web site and give it a spin.

In Marion, the GIS operation is budgeted with other computer functions, but it appears that the county has about three employees dedicated solely to the system. Escambia County has five workers assigned to build and maintain the system at a cost of $338,119 this year.





Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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