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Brooksville faces another year battling a budget crunch

BROOKSVILLE — The presentation had a familiar ring to it.

Weak revenue projections, rising expenses and limited options to keep the city financially afloat without reducing services.

That was cautionary picture drawn Monday night by City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha during the Brooksville City Council's first 2012-13 budget workshop. Despite a number of cost-cutting measures the past two years, a continued lag in property taxes means the city faces the throes of yet another year of financial belt tightening, Norman-Vacha said.

Echoing her words from last year's budget overview, Norman-Vacha described the ongoing financial crunch as "the new norm" and said it will require more forethought by city officials in finding solutions that strengthen the city's present as well as its future.

"It is no longer as simple as not filling vacant positions, limiting capital improvement projects, capital outlay or minimizing operating budgets to the point where each expenditure dollar is scrutinized," she said.

Norman-Vacha pointed out that the city made substantial headway last year by cutting costs without reducing employee hours or pay levels. Through reductions in select staffing levels, lower employee insurance costs and the leasing of the Quarry Golf Course to a private entity, her city managed to bridge a projected $404,000 shortfall and keep the tax rate at 6.37 mills. (A mill is one dollar per $1,000 of assessed property value.)

However, Norman-Vacha warned that repeating that feat this year would be more difficult because costs continue to rise and revenues continue to fall.

John Emerson, chief deputy to the county property appraiser, warned council members that property values could shrink an additional 6 percent this year. That could mean as much as a $149,000 drop in tax revenue. Norman-Vacha said that other streams of revenue, such as electric franchise fees and communications fees, have been falling as well.

Other concerns for the coming year include rising fuel costs, increases in fire and police pension contributions and the possibility of increases in health and property insurance premiums.

Council members agreed that over the next few months, a number of financial issues will need to be addressed.

"We can no longer as a city afford to ignore what other municipalities have already found answers to," Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn said.

The council wants to revisit several topics, including implementing a fire assessment on residential and commercial buildings. The proposal came before the council two years ago, but never garnered enough support for passage.

Now, council members think the time finally might be right for such an idea, and they want to consider a methodology where assessments for fire and rescue services would be based on the size of the property and how frequently services are needed.

Council members also want to look at the possibility of enacting reforms for police and fire pension systems. The city currently has in place two retirement plans, a "chapter" plan administered by the city that is funded in part by assessments on residents' home and car insurance premiums, as well as participation in the Florida Retirement System, which is administered by the state's Department of Management Services. Council members feel the city could save money by adopting the state's retirement plan for all employees.

A topic not discussed Monday was the reintroduction of the city's red-light camera program, which is due to begin later this year, potentially providing a lucrative revenue source.

Council members have said in the past that they would address what to do with proceeds from the program later this year.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Brooksville faces another year battling a budget crunch 02/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 7:57pm]
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