Even though they didn't get their way, Hernando County Commissioners Dave Russell and Rose Rocco deserve high praise for looking out for the taxpayer during Tuesday's ambulance rate hike hearing.
Commissioners Russell and Rocco wanted to tie any increase in ambulance fees to reductions in the property tax millage rate.
A smart move and one long overdue for the taxpayers.
Because, lately, property taxpayers have been getting soaked by Hernando County Fire Rescue.
While Fire Chief Mike Nickerson would like everyone to believe that his department is having to do more with less, quite the opposite is true.
Like a corn-fed pig living high on the hog, Hernando County Fire Rescue's budget has grown to mammoth proportions in recent years.
In 2003, Hernando County taxpayers forked over $1.5 million to fund the county's fire rescue service. That number doubled to $3 million in 2007. During the same period, ambulance fees collected jumped from $2 million to $3 million - even though only about 75 percent of fees are being collected.
Along with other assorted revenues, the Hernando County Fire Rescue budget has bloated from $3.9 million in 2003 to $6.9 million in 2007.
That's a $3 million leap in five years - a staggering 77 percent climb.
Revenues exceeded the budgeted amount last year by more than $1 million. Added to that, revenues exceeded actual expenses by nearly $1.4 million. The department's fund balance at the beginning of 2007 was about $400,000, and the ending balance was about $1.9 million - an increase of $1.5 million over the previous year.
Can you say cash cow?
On top of that, the department's reserve funds - excess money, profits from the pockets of taxpayers, if you will, carried over from year to year - have soared, from about $86,000 in 2004 to $1.14 million in 2007.
That's what we call a La-Z-Boy safety net - padded and very cushy.
County government officials love to remind us taxpayers that they've "bitten the bullet" and reduced millage rates in recent years. What they forget to add is the "ever so slightly" part and that property values climbed so high, so rapidly that, quite frankly, they've had trouble spending and stockpiling all the excess loot.
Still, the question begs an answer: Was it the correct move to raise ambulance rates?
The county should be reimbursed as much as allowable by Medicare and Medicaid and other insurances. That only makes good business sense.
However, Commissioners Jeff Stabins, Diane Rowden and Chairman Chris Kingsley let the taxpayers down by approving the increases without directly tying them to a reduction in the property tax millage rate.
Maybe they don't read their annual audit reports and budgets very carefully.
The fee hikes paid by users should lessen the burden on taxpayers who, for the most part, subsidize a service they hope to never use, but are ever so thankful will be there if needed.
Instead, it appears the fire rescue budget may be headed back to the Tax Dollar Cafe for the all-you-can eat luncheon buffet.
There is still time to remedy the situation. The 2009 budget process is in its infancy, with lots of time for tweaking and trimming remaining.
Public safety should always be a top priority for county government, as it is with the taxpayers. However, the scare tactics often used to fund its ever-increasing appetite for tax dollars in Hernando County have backfired. Commissioners need to better understand the financial workings of county government and hold administrators more accountable.
Amendment 1 was supposed to send a message to local property taxing districts: You've been feeding at the taxpayers' trough for far too long.
County government is too big, it spends and wastes far too much of the taxpayers' money.
A millage-rate reduction diet is long overdue and county managers need to start operating their departments within the means of the taxpayers.
All fee increases in general fund operations should be tied to property tax reductions or the county is simply going to continue to get fat on the taxpayers - taxpayers who can no longer afford to feed this behemoth in these troubled economic times.
Rowden, Stabins and Kingsley would be wise to follow Russell and Rocco's lead. Ironically, you'd think it wold be the reverse with Rowden, Stabins and Kingsley up for re-election this year.