BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County government has weathered the financial downturn over the last five years by relying largely on cash reserves and employee attrition.
As property values and tax revenues fell, the number of employees dropped. Departing workers were not replaced and others were let go due to consolidation.
In some departments, services suffered. It took the controversial euthanization of a dog to get the County Commission to step forward and add staff at Animal Services last year.
With the start of a new fiscal year last month, the trend may be about to reverse. County officials have begun to advertise to fill some positions that have sat vacant for several years.
However, at least one of the positions being advertised — an additional assistant county attorney — has caught the attention of several commissioners.
The staffing in the county attorney's office was a target of public criticism when the economy turned sour. At the time, there were five attorneys in the office, including County Attorney Garth Coller.
Two assistant county attorneys left, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, but were not replaced.
Coller promised he would make do, but keeping up with the workload has become increasing difficult, especially after the death of assistant county attorney Jeff Kirk two years ago. Two other attorneys have filled that position, but neither for very long.
The second, Shaun Amarnani, announced last week he is leaving to take a similar job in Tampa. That will leave just Coller and his deputy, Jon Jouben, to do the job.
Coller had posted the third assistant county attorney's job even before Amarnani's announcement. He said the amount of work in the office had increased to the point that it was necessary to have three assistants. Now he has two openings to fill.
But the desire to add another attorney was not something county commissioners were aware of during budget discussions this summer, even though the position is in the spending plan they approved.
Commissioners Wayne Dukes and Jim Adkins said they want to discuss the position with County Administrator Len Sossamon and with Coller. Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he knows the county is starting to get busier, but "by the same token, we're not out of the woods yet.''
Russell said the county still needs to make prudent decisions about where to spend its limited resources. Adding another attorney, he said, "I'd certainly question that before we move on.''
He said he worried about repeating history.
"I don't want us to fall back into that same old thing of filling positions so we will be as bloated as we certainly were in '05 and '06,'' he said.
Also posted is a clerical job in the Human Resources Department, a job not filled since 2011. The position is badly needed, according to Cheryl Marsden, director of administrative services.
A part-time volunteer now answers phones for Human Resources, Risk Management, Workers' Compensation, Finance, county administration and the County Commission. That means workers in those departments frequently must answer phone calls.
"It's just very, very busy, and they can't get their own work done,'' Marsden said. "It's disruptive.''
A new position is also slated to be added to administration: an assistant to newly hired public information manager Virginia Singer. That employee also will work with Sossamon's administrative assistant, Tina Duenninger, who has been the sole staff support for both Sossamon and the county commissioners since two other assistants were given to other departments several years ago.
None of the commissioners question the need for that position.
Sossamon said department heads presented the need for filling positions during the budget process. Cutting staff for several years took its toll. The board-controlled departments that are funded through the general fund now employ 186 people. In 2007, there were 319 people budgeted in those departments.
The county is hearing complaints about county roads and rights of way looking trashy and overgrown, and the county is losing its curb appeal, Sossamon said. "At some point, you start to see the seams unravel, and that's where we are,'' he said. "What we're trying to do is take a look at it systemically and strategically to backfill the positions to continue and maybe even improve services.''
Even with the new positions, the 2013-14 general fund budget is almost static compared to last year's. Sossamon credits continued work toward cost savings, and he specifically mentioned efficiencies in procurement activities and fleet management.
Neither Commissioner Diane Rowden nor Commissioner Nick Nicholson had any issues with filling the open positions since Sossamon had approved adding them to the budget. "He's the one who is running the county,'' Nicholson said. "If he thinks that it's needed, it's up to him.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.