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 lakegovernment.com 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.
Lake, on the other hand, has 12 GIS employees, and the system is costing taxpayers $785,308 this year.
How do other counties manage with fewer employees? Perhaps now is a good time to investigate. GIS is a marvelous tool. But nobody "needs" one to run a government.
Equally useful is what's called "information outreach," which moved in with the computer services for budgeting purposes this year.
Those folks fire off dozens of press releases and maintain the county's Web site, which —speaking as a connoisseur of government Web sites — really is top-drawer. Citizens can find what they need easily and just about everything imaginable is online. Additionally, they provide help to other departments in creating brochures and the like.
Lake has six people on the payroll at a cost of $314,901. The salaries of four of them are funded 50 percent by the resort tax because they help promote tourism. The employees include a director, Internet application developer, public-relations officer, Webmaster and two graphic artists.
Escambia, too, is a big spender in that department. The county has five employees and an operating cost of $400,000. But when you consider that four of Escambia's five county commissioners were brought down in a corruption scheme in 2002 and crooked officials with their delicious scandals have dogged the county since, perhaps there's a serious need to improve government's image. Too bad nobody actually considered improving government.
In Marion, where operations don't resemble the Wild West, county managers get along with three people – one employee who takes care of the Web at a cost of $69,302 a year, and two others who work directly for the county manager with combined salaries of $97,553, for a total cost of $166,855.
Once a Web site is established, outreach is something that can be done at a basic level by one person. It wouldn't be fancy, but the news would get out. Would a certain columnist miss the level of information provided? Absolutely. But she's not silly enough to think that a county must have a cool Web site so the landfill continues to operate.
The county attorney's office is another spot where commissioners should ask questions. With six employees, the office's budget this year is $679,310. Marion gets along with four lawyers at a cost of $436,828. Its budget does not show that legal services are outsourced, either. Escambia is on the high end, with 12 employees and spending at $1.3 million.
Basic services such as law enforcement and fire are funded at varying levels, too, but Lake is on the low end..
In Lake, the fire service runs on $22.7 million with 203 employees. But Lake has 14 municipalities, and at least six have their own fire departments. Marion, which has only one big-city fire department to help out, has a far larger department with 397 employees and a budget of $44.9 million.
Lake gives the sheriff $62 million to run the regular patrol, the county and judicial-center security. Those three operations cost $74.6 million in Escambia, and $72.4 million in Marion, which pays for most of it by a separate taxing district rather than regular property taxes.
Here are a few other places to consider some surgical trimming:
• Lake has $84,000 budgeted to spend on a federal lobbyist. Kill it. Congressmen who represent this area ought to be getting cash for Lake.
• MyRegion.org, a regional planning group, gets $10,000. Color it gone. They're a group of people who aren't doing a bit of good for this county and whose policies about growth would harm this community. Lake shouldn't be contributing a nickel, anyway.
• The county recently got an energy grant of more than $2 million. It paid $80,000 to a consultant to be told how the money should be spent. That's just one example. The county in 2008 paid $114,000 to a consultant to tell it how to attract more jobs. The result was a cut-and-paste job right out of reports to its other clients. And its advice was, oh-so-useful, wasn't it? Stop paying consultants. They're not worth it.
None of this even takes a small gander at those making more than $100,000 a year in salaries, and there are more than one or two.
Examining line-item budgets would allow those wielding the knives to slice small expenditures — maybe enough of them to keep from cutting into services that people here pay for, want and depend on.
If commissioners don't display the necessary leadership to get that accomplished, residents can sit back and watch them hack away with a machete. Or maybe they'll use one of those big whirling machines that trims trees in groves. Then, count on it: Limbs will be lost.
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times