The menu in Minneola is rice and beans, forget the sausage. By November, the rice might run out.
At least the city is starting early, so perhaps employees can gather a few nuts and berries from the woods to tide Minneola over the winter.
Oct. 1 marks the start of the first year of reckoning for this small south Lake County city. It's the year taxpayers must begin coughing up $1.3 million annually to pay for a single foolhardy decision by previous elected officials four years ago: the construction of a sewage plant.
This will not be easy, given that those same elected officials also spent with abandon on other, smaller projects.
The cumulative result for Minneola is a financial starvation that will force the practice of cannibalism and likely result in a city that may not provide even the basics residents are expecting.
Minneola had a budget of roughly $10 million when Mayor Pat Kelley took office in 2009. Today, it's about $8 million, or 20 percent less. For the upcoming year, the city is expecting to take in only about $7 million, and the mayor is determined not to use reserves to balance the budget. Throw in the fact that the account from which Minneola has been paying for the unneeded and little-used $20 million sewage plant has run dry.
City Council members were so anxious for growth that they rushed to build the plant, ignoring questions about whether it really was needed. They were expecting a flood of new houses to pay for it; instead, they got a growth drought.
Now, city residents who neither wanted nor needed a sewage plant will be stuck paying for it, and they'll be sacrificing things they do want in an effort to keep the city solvent.
No more waste to cut
So who gets the ax? The city library, where so many out-of-work residents use computers to apply for benefits? The guy who cuts the grass in the parks where the kids play? The woman who is working on a project that would result in lower insurance rates for owners of homes and business?
Please don't say "reduce waste." Minneola has fewer employees than other cities its size and already spends less per resident than those cities, said City Manager Mark Johnson, who voluntarily took a pay cut when he arrived six months ago. And when you've cut government by 20 percent, you've liposuctioned the fat and are busy sucking out the muscle.
One thing is certain: The city must reduce its loan payments. That's why staffers are working to refinance the note that the city owes on the sewage plant — a $16.5 million outstanding debt — and looking at other loans. In all, the city next year would have to budget $1.7 million, or nearly 25 percent of its total income, repaying loans for a sewage plant, water and sewer lines and City Hall if nothing is refinanced.
The city expects to go from a 20-year note to a 30-year note on the plant, and council members will be asked to approve the change when the paperwork arrives from Tallahassee. That will cost taxpayers a minimum of $2.7 million more in interest and refinancing charges over the long run but will reduce the payment by as much as $278,000 a year.
Pushing today's debt off on upcoming generations seldom is considered brilliant fiscal policy, but Minneola's options aren't exactly expansive.
There are two others, and Kelley said he can't stomach either: raise taxes (retching sounds should be inserted here) and reduce the amount the city pays to the sheriff to provide law enforcement. Kelley should add a third option to those: disband the city's Fire Department and contract with the county to provide the service.
It's a lot easier to yank money from the sheriff while insisting he run the operation more efficiently. It's considerably more difficult to do the same thing to yourself.
Kelley's final option is to gut the City Hall staff, which isn't really very big at all. Consider that Minneola's chief of technology, who keeps the city computer servers running, is also the code-enforcement officer.
"We're freezing positions as they come open," Johnson said. "We had a wastewater-treatment operator resign. That means our only wastewater-treatment operator now is working seven days a week.
"We're training someone from another department to help him, but it will be a year before that person is fully trained. So for the next year, he cannot take a day off. He cannot go on vacation. His family came from out of state, and he couldn't even spend any time with them."
Other cities in Lake are struggling, but none so dramatically as Minneola. Good luck, council members. Too bad sewage plants don't sell well on eBay.
Lritchie@tribune.com Her blog is online at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times