March 5, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Like many large public agencies, Hillsborough County, Fla., has been hit hard in recent years by the plummeting housing market, dwindling property taxes and a depressed economy.
The fourth largest county in Florida, with a population nearing 1 million, is again bracing for a predicted $55 million budget shortfall to critical services many residents depend on.
And like many large public agencies, Hillsborough is jumping on the social media bandwagon in hopes of getting feedback for its upcoming budget adoption.
"The cuts will be visible," County Spokesman Willie Puz said. "This is new and we're encouraged in the comments we've received, that people are engaging us that way, but we always hope for more."
The county announced in late February its adoption of county-specific social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, a blog, e-mail, text messaging and voicemail. The icing on the cake is the cost to implement such interactive tools - nothing, Puz said.
Areas already being considered for cuts include the "aging services department," Puz said, which provides funds for senior citizen services like respite care, services for Alzheimer's patients and food delivery to those living at home.
"Until it hits home that these cuts may be made, residents may not realize it may impact them," Puz said. "Their voices need to be heard."
The push toward social media came from the seven-member Board of County Commissioners, Puz said. Last year, the county took a more traditional approach to the budget process by hosting numerous budget hearings, at which residents could voice their concerns, and had e-mail and a phone line services.
"We're trying to grab their attention, their ideas and thoughts on what they feel is important and where they feel cuts can be made," Puz said.
It appears to be working so far. Hillsborough's Twitter and Facebook pages total hundreds of followers. Comments have been rolling in on the county's blog. The first entry asks "What county services do you use and how/why are they important to you?" The query has received 33 comments so far, the responses ranging from keeping or improving the county's library hours, keeping the Code Enforcement, Aging Services, Parks and Recreation police and fire departments alive, cutting the Commission on the Status of Women and ridding the airwaves of many public access TV channels.
The county continues in the same vein in its second blog post: "What county services would you reduce?" One anonymous poster chided the county for its past cuts to the library: "Whatever you do, don't cut the library anymore ... The hours that you already cut were a real shame," the poster wrote.
The county is doing all in its power to get the word out, Puz said. Users may click on a microphone graphic on the county's Web page that directs them to the social media tools for budget discussion. Residents can watch budget hearings live or on demand. Puz also plans on using the news media, Web articles and the county newsletter to announce the various mediums people can employ.
Regardless of what form the public comments come in, all will be sent to county management, budget staff and county commissioners for consideration in developing the recommended budget, the county has announced. That budget will be delivered to the county commissioners from the county administrator on June 3.
After that time, county commissioners will discuss efficiencies and possible reductions until the Sept. 23, 2010, budget public hearing, when the final 2011 fiscal year budget will be adopted. The in-between time should be fiery with suggestions and criticisms.
"We may not hear much from the public until the budget comes out," Puz said. "It's always about getting the word out to people."