BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County government soon will shrink a little more.
By 5 p.m. Friday, 23 county employees had signed papers to take an early leave package.
That's less than half of the 56 who signed up for the buyout package in August. Those employees had 45 days to sign the documents, and that deadline was Friday.
It will be at least next week before officials determine how big of an impact the buyouts will have on the county's $755,000 general fund deficit, said budget director George Zoettlein. Employees who signed by Friday have another seven days to change their minds.
Some employees signing up for leave — those in the utilities department, for example — are not paid out of the general fund. While their leaving will help the overall goal of shrinking government and its enterprise fund budgets, it won't reduce the general fund deficit.
Of the 23 who signed the buyout documents, 10 work at the county landfill, which is part of the utilities fund.
Still, there is hope that enough general fund employees took the offer to cut the shortfall by a projected $155,000, Zoettlein said.
"I think there could be a good chance," said Zoettlein, who also signed Friday but has agreed to stay through the end of the year.
Zoettlein's position is being eliminated, but he says he intends to apply for a new job that will incorporate the duties of finance director and assistant county administrator.
Larry Jennings, the current assistant county administrator, also took a buyout. If Zoettlein gets the new job, his buyout agreement is voided.
Because his and Jennings' positions had already been eliminated, their buyouts don't count toward the savings, Zoettlein said.
As part of the package, employees receive one week's pay for every year of service — with a limit of 18 weeks — along with accumulated vacation and sick time. They also get 18 months of single medical coverage.
"For some individuals, this is a good opportunity to either go out and try something else or, if they're ready, retire," said human resources director Cheryl Marsden.
Most of the employees on the list will serve their last day on Oct. 16. Others will stay until mid November and a few until Dec. 31.
Two, including library services director Barbara Shiflett, were gone by Friday.
Officials were surprised in August when so many signed up for the early leave program, but they expected that many workers would back out as the budget process played out and county commissioners made decisions about the extent of the downsizing effort.
A prime example: The county's government broadcasting department.
Brenda Frazier, the county's community relations coordinator, and Rick Foti, video production manager, signed up in August but said Friday afternoon that they wouldn't be taking the offer because they're slightly more optimistic than they were two months ago.
Commissioners had considered farming out those duties to a private company but decided to keep the department. Two of five employees were cut, though.
"I'm going to stay for this next year and hope for the best," said Frazier, 54.
In other cases, as county administrator David Hamilton enacted his plan to streamline management, employees who signed up for the buyout wound up in new roles — and working for less money.
Among them is Parks and Recreation manager Pat Fagan, who put his name on the list in August. Since then, his position as Parks and Recreation director changed and he took a $10,000 pay cut, bringing his annual salary to $87,834. Harry Johnson, formerly the recreation manager who also signed up for the buyout, remains as recreation coordinator.
Others who signed up this summer but didn't follow through are Dennis Dix, transportation planning coordinator; Dawn Velsor, lead environmental planner; and Gregg Sutton, assistant county engineer.
Even if the buyout has the effect officials hope for, the general fund will still be roughly $530,000 beyond the budget approved by the County Commission last week. The commission settled on a $400.8 million budget, including a $111.2 million general fund, with a tax rate equal to last year's.
The next day, Hamilton sent a letter to county employees thanking them for their service "during one of the most challenging economies the County has ever faced" and warning them of the possibility of more unpleasant news.
"Each department will be affected based on budget shortfalls," Hamilton wrote. "The tools that have been identified to balance the departmental budgets will include layoffs, Early Leave incentives, unfilled vacant positions, reduction in force, and furloughs where available."
"We need to be very honest with the staff that provides the services of Hernando County government," Hamilton said Friday.
The commission has already approved 10 days of furloughs for 93 non-union employees including the county administrator and department heads. But more savings could come as a result of upcoming talks with the Teamsters union, which maintains that unpaid days off, layoffs and further reductions in force are unnecessary.
There are three bargaining meetings with the union this month. The first is set for Monday morning.
Foti, the video production manager and a union employee, said there are worse scenarios than furloughs and offered a sentiment he says he's heard from many coworkers: "It's better than losing my job."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.