Area finds good, bad in budget

Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 1:05 a.m.

The Hippodrome State Theatre's aging seats may have to sit tight another year.

Hippodrome General Manager Mark Sexton said he was hoping Gov. Jeb Bush would pencil in the $100,000 for renovations - primarily to replace the theater's old Main Stage seats - it has requested the past two years. But the new budget Bush unveiled Tuesday contains no money for capital improvements for cultural facilities.

After a disastrous budget for the arts last year, however, Sexton said there is some good news for the new budget year.

"We're heartened to see Gov. Bush recommend an additional $2.6 million over last year in funding of cultural programming statewide," Sexton said.

From health programs to the environment, good news-bad news seemed to characterize Bush's proposed budget as far as it impacts North Central Florida.

Dick Bradley is executive director of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Alachua County, which serves more than 200 adults with such disabilities as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida or mental retardation.

He said he's glad to see that the governor is willing to commit new resources to the program. The money will help the estimated 3,200 new clients statewide who will be phased in throughout the year.

"On the other side, the current waiting list is 13,500, so there are still more than 10,000 people who are not going to get any services," Bradley said. "We know there are not unlimited resources, but we wish that it could have gone further."

Environmental money

Two environmental funding proposals drew mixed reviews from experts in natural resource protection.

A $178 million proposal to provide grants and loans to local governments for drinking, storm and wastewater projects was viewed with caution by some who worried the money could be used for infrastructure development and not restoration of polluted waterways.

"It's always potentially positive to see money designated for water projects," said Linda Young, southeast regional coordinator of the Clean Water Network in Tallahassee.

"However, over the past few years we've seen too much of this money directed into new growth and sprawl," she said. "It would be nice to see more of a focus on helping our local governments clean up storm water problems and deal with current environmental issues instead of promoting growth."

Jim Stevenson, former director of the Department of Environmental Protection's Springs Task Force, had nothing but praise for $2.5 million recommended for state springs protection. "That's what we've gotten in the past three years, and that's excellent that he's continuing it," Stevenson said. "I think it sends a good message that springs are important to Floridians."

Court system

The court system, facing changes wrought by a revision to Florida's Constitution, could face cutbacks in programs and personnel under the governor's budget. Under the revision, passed in 1998, the responsibility of paying for court services shifts from local to state government this year.

The state's courts had sought $170 million, said Stan Morris, chief judge for the 8th Judicial Circuit.

The governor's recommendations offer $223 million for the legal system, but of that amount, $102.6 million is for state courts. The rest, $120.4 million, is funding for state attorneys, public defenders, private attorneys' fees in criminal and dependency cases, due process legal costs and other related costs.

"We think the governor tried to be fair to us," Morris said.

But unless more money is allotted to the courts by the Legislature, this six-county circuit and other circuits could lose employees, he said. Courts also could come up short in funding for technology services and equalizing what court programs are offered around the state instead of on a county-by-county basis.

University money

For the first time in possibly four or more years, the University of Florida and the other 10 state universities aren't seeing red ink flowing from the governor's budget.

The budget includes an increase of $144.1 million of direct support for universities to build on programs in profession-shortage areas such as teachers and nurses and to provide for enrollment growth.

"We are pleased with where we are starting from," said Rick Bucciarelli, UF's vice president for government relations.

The governor is asking students to pick up more of the tab. Bush recommends a tuition increase of 7.5 percent for in-state students and 12.5 percent for out-of-state students. The increase is anticipated to generate about $76 million - half of the increase touted by the governor.

Other entries in the governor's budget include three requests made by UF:

  • $5 million to help with reconstruction of Library West.

  • $5 million for Genetics and Cancer Research Institute.

  • $6.5 million for maintenance and utilities.

    Santa Fe Community College was told last week of Bush's proposal to give state community colleges much of the money they've asked for. It's great news for the colleges, which were given virtually no new money to fund operations last year despite growing student enrollment.

    The proposal is for a 7.6 percent funding boost, although that increase is coupled with a 5 percent tuition increase for students.

    "It would catch up on the unfunded enrollment increases," said Jan Bullard, SFCC vice president of administration and finance.

    Public schools

    For pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, Bush is proposing per-student funding of $6,100, a 4.85 percent increase over last year.

    "The total dollar amount sounds good, but it depends how much comes with strings attached," said Keith Birkett, deputy superintendent in charge of finance for Alachua County schools.

    In meeting the constitutional mandate to reduce class sizes, the governor is proposing more than doubling - to $976.4 million - the amount the state gives districts to implement the initiative, phased in through 2010. The Alachua County school district's share of that money would be about $10 million.

    This year, the district reported having to use less than a third of its class-size allocation on hiring extra teachers. But Birkett predicted that share would increase as the district tries to meet the more difficult part of the new mandate, making sure every class in every school complies with the class-size caps.

    Rural areas

    Rural areas fared well in Bush's proposal. And Chris Doolin, a lobbyist representing the Small County Coalition and the Small School District Council Consortium, said he expects the increase in funding for rural counties to be supported by most legislators, even those representing metropolitan areas.

    Doolin said Bush was "clearly targeting small counties," or those with a population of less than 75,000 to receive the money.

    "I don't think support for rural areas is going to boil down to whether someone lives in a rural area or not," he said. "Members of the Senate and House have consistently, when they can, supported advancing rural areas."

    County concerns

    Alachua County Legislative Affairs Director Rick Mills said the county will analyze the proposed budget to get a better idea on how it could impact services and operations here. Figures for specific counties were not available, officials said.

    Alachua County would join other counties statewide in having to pick up a greater share of the costs for the state Department of Juvenile Justice and the state retirement system, said Carol Bracy, legislative director for the Florida Association of Counties.

    "One big huge impact for us is the Department of Juvenile Justice detention facility cost shift, which for 12 months would be about $86.7 million statewide," Bracy said.

    "We are probably going to see an increase in retirement rates. That is going to be an impact statewide. At this point, those are the issues that surface to the top, but we are still analyzing it."

    Highlights of the recommended $3.8 billion budget for the Florida Department of Children & Families include:

  • Almost $30 million to enhance community-based care services.

  • An increase of more than $21 million to promote adoptions.

  • $10 million to build healthy families and marriages; and $4 million aimed at reducing child abuse and neglect.

    "The budget reflects the governor's commitment to ensuring safety, welfare and strength of Florida's families," said Tom Barnes, Department of Children & Families spokesman.

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