Running Like a Business

Should government be looking to turn a profit?

There's a "Space for Lease" sign on the marquee in front of Tampa's Education Channel.

It's not moving out; the nonprofit cable access channel, whose offices are located on Cass Street just west of downtown, has simply found that it doesn't need all the space it thought was going to need over the next few years. Why? Because the channel, which provides free assistance to more than 100,000 Hillsborough schoolchildren, knows it won't have the wherewithal to expand. The county budget cutback lopped the channel's grant in half this year and is scheduled to wipe it out entirely next year.

But this is not a story about how kids might not be able to get help on their math homework. This is a story about how Florida government is increasingly putting its services out of the reach of the average Floridian. Not to mention the less-than-average Floridian.

I'm seeing more and more examples of Florida government moving away from the people, moving away from accountability. The trend started under former Gov. Jeb Bush and his slapdash rush to privatize some state services, many of those efforts unsuccessful because of a lack of foresight.

As I wrote in last week's cover story, that kind of government-for-profit attitude has filtered down to the local level. Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman argues for his proposed $40 million Championship Park amateur sports complex by touting its potential to turn a profit through hosting tournaments. Those revenues, in turn, would be used to replace budgets for other parks and recreation needs that were slashed in this tight budget year.

And throughout Tampa Bay, cable providers — freed by state legislators from local oversight in a bill that catered to the business lobby — are moving channels that televise government meetings higher up on the dial. The most recent example is in Manatee County, where watching a government meeting at home will require cable subscribers to upgrade to the pricier digital service or pay an extra $1 a month for a new converter box.

Public access cable television, the domain of unusual personalities and unique voices that add to a robust democracy, fared worse than its educational access sister station: Hillsborough County commissioners eliminated the annual grant to Tampa Bay Community Network.

This is only the beginning.

Legislators meet this week to cut even more from the state budget and could craft a new property tax cap solution, their previous attempt having been derailed from its Jan. 29 election date by a circuit court judge who found its ballot summary misleading. Critics deride such tax caps as a false panacea.

"Property tax caps do nothing to change the main drivers behind higher property taxes," concluded a study published in June by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. "They cannot slow the increase in the cost of health care or fuel, for example, which reflects forces outside of the control of local officials. Nor do they change the demand for local public services, such as quality K-12 education, public safety and good roads."

Tax caps do not really force governments to work more efficiently.

"Proponents of property tax caps claim that local governments are not spending taxpayers' money efficiently and that limiting the property tax revenue they can collect will force officials to cut waste while causing little or no harm to local public services," the CBPP wrote. "This argument, however, overlooks two essential points: 1. The costs associated with providing local services, such as health insurance and pensions for local employees, are rising rapidly and are expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future; and 2. The majority of these costs are outside localities' control."

Tax caps, in other words, don't force governments to deliver the same level of services more efficiently; they force governments to cut services.

Unless, of course, those services can turn a profit.

Full Disclosure: The executive director of the Education Channel, Ann Goldenberg, is the spouse of Creative Loafing Tampa film critic Lance Goldenberg. Lance does not participate in any way in coverage of the channel or the county budget issue. CL's CEO Ben Eason is a member of the board of Tampa Bay Community Network public access channel, which saw its funds eliminated. Likewise, he does not participate in selecting, editing or reviewing stories about that subject. Check my blog, thepoliticalwhore.com, for breaking political and media news or to leave a comment about this column.

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