After learning earlier this week that the county could face a $9.5 million deficit in its 2012-13 budget, Hernando County commissioners focused on financial queries Wednesday as they moved closer to deciding which of three finalists to choose as the next county administrator.
For an hour and a half, commissioners publicly grilled the three finalists, after having spent the morning with them in private interviews.
When the public session was complete, the board decided to take a few days before a public discussion of their assessment. They are expected to make a decision on Tuesday.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes and Commissioners Jeff Stabins and John Druzbick each said they believed they could find their next administrator in the field of three: Ed Green of Colorado, Len Sossamon of the Carolinas and James Wilson, a Texan with years of experience in Galveston County.
Commissioner Jim Adkins wanted specifics from the candidates about their job creation plans, while Commissioner Dave Russell wanted both short-term and long-term approaches to balancing the budget.
Green told commissioners that the short-term solution to their serious budget problems was the unfortunate reality that they might have to raise revenue. In additional, he said, they needed to get the county's five constitutional officers to work with them on cutting expenses.
Green, 63, was county manager in Garfield County, Colo., for 13 years but was dismissed without cause in January when the county's board decided to get more involved in day-to-day operations.
Stabins asked how to save money in law enforcement.
One thing Green said he did to help with his Garfield County budget was to require all salary funding for positions that came open during the year, even from constitutional officers, to come back into county coffers. If the position was filled, the department only got what it needed to pay the salary for the rest of the fiscal year.
"We could harvest millions in vacancy savings,'' he said.
On the economic development question, Green said that in Colorado his county had focused on creating regional plans for enticing business and axed 80 pages of code that was standing in the way of development.
Druzbick wanted to know what Hernando County offered Green.
"A challenge,'' he replied. "I love a challenge.''
Sossamon talked about his solutions to economic issues in previous jobs, describing how the textile industry folded, forcing employees to commute elsewhere for work. He focused on developing industrial parks and attracting industries.
Sossamon, 61, has worked in real estate development in recent years, but from 2004 to 2006 served as county administrator for Newberry County, S.C. He also served as city manager in Concord, N.C., for 13 years and planning director there before that.
In Hernando County, he said, the county could focus on renewable energy industries and medical technical fields and should utilize the county's airport as a major draw.
On the question of resolving budget issues, in the short run Sossamon said the budget must be scrutinized from every angle and to determine what the county's service needs would be.
Planning, based on future revenue and expense projections, is the long-term answer, he said.
Eliminating potential roadblocks and offering incentive packages are two approaches Wilson mentioned to promote economic development.
Wilson, 54, is finance director for the city of Altus, Okla., but worked for 1999 through 2011 for Galveston County, Texas, including nine years in a job comparable to county administrator.
Wilson's approaches to budget issues would include learning all of the details about the county's various reserves and determining the actual cost of providing services at the existing levels.
He also spoke about gaining efficiencies by measuring the county departments' processes compared with what are known as "best practices.''
Russell asked Wilson about the thickness of his skin, a common question in a county that has had eight administrators since 1990.
At first Wilson hesitated. Then he said he didn't overreact to things, but did expect professionalism from the public.
He added that regardless of the tone, "we value public input. If you stop getting input from the public, you won't make as well-informed decisions.''