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Budget adjustment rankles Hernando County commissioner

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday acknowledged $37 million had not been included in the 2010-11 county budget, a move the budget manager called a "midyear adjustment" but one commissioner called embarrassing.

The budget adjustment included about $22 million in reserves for several transportation projects, including the widening of Elgin Boulevard and Sunshine Grove Road. Money was also rolled forward from utilities, solid waste, the general fund, sensitive lands and solid waste accounts.

George Zoettlein, the budget manager, explained that after the annual audit, the county typically readjusts its budget to reflect money that rolls forward from the previous budget year.

This year, that adjustment total represents a 10.8 percent increase in the overall budget of $335 million. Last year, the total adjustment was $6 million, Zoettlein said.

But Commissioner Jeff Stabins said the county has faced harsh criticism from the community for previous budget changes, and this time, with such a large amount unrecognized until now, the criticism might be justified.

"This is embarrassing as far as I'm concerned,'' Stabins said. "This should not be coming out now.''

He asked County Administrator David Hamilton what he was going to do about the problem. Hamilton acknowledged that "the amount is excessive by our standards.''

Hamilton said he would work closely with Zoettlein during this year's budgeting process to make sure the problem doesn't happen again.

He also noted that streamlining of the county transportation services staff would be recommended and a previous report urging restructuring was set on the back burner because so many other projects were under way.

"You can expect me to be on top of this,'' Hamilton said, referring to the mistake as a "reporting error.''

"Somehow this got missed,'' he said. "I will take the responsibility to make sure we won't miss these figures again.''

Zoettlein said that four people in transportation services are responsible for forwarding budget reserve information to him each year.

Commissioners also heard from Cyndi Gambrel, the supervisor for finances in that department. Stabins asked Gambrel whether she would submit another incorrect budget to the budget office this year.

"It was a correct budget,'' Gambrel responded.

Stabins disagreed.

"It was not done in a timely manner or a fiscally honest manner. I'm not saying it was done deliberately but I am saying it casts embarrassment to this organization, to this board to be looking at these numbers in March and not September.''

The county's budget is finalized in September and the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Gambrel said that major transportation projects were all in a state of flux last September when the county's budget was being finalized. Projects such as Elgin Boulevard and Sunshine Grove Road were out to bid, while pavement management funds were not yet allocated because there were still federal stimulus projects ongoing, she explained.

The county also wasn't sure how much it would owe on the ongoing County Line Road improvement project. Those four projects alone accounted for most of the $22 million.

Since those projects were not yet under way and there were questions about how much would be needed to fund them, the funds were rolled forward into the new budget, and Gambrel said the decision was made to just recognize the amounts during the normal midyear adjustment.

Commissioner Dave Russell noted that the funds were promised to projects and that strings were tied to the dollars. Zoettlein agreed, noting that the county could not use the money for general fund expenditures.

"We're not just stashing money in our piggy bank,'' Russell said.

The news of the fund balance reserve caught activist Janey Baldwin by surprise.

She said she couldn't believe the county could make such a big mistake and noted that, in the private sector, "that person, gone … someone would be fired immediately'' regardless of the reason.

"Maybe someone should get fired,'' Baldwin said.

Stabins laid blame on county leadership. Using Baldwin's private sector analogy: "Ultimately it is the CEO of the corporation and the board of directors who are responsible to the shareholders,'' he said.

The commission agreed 4-0 to recognize the reserve fund total. Chairman Jim Adkins was not present.

In other business:

• Commissioners decided to put more force behind their efforts to have the Little Rock Cannery designated as a historical structure and assigned the task to move the discussion forward to the county's tourism office.

Officials have been talking to officials with the State of Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation since August 2010 and local officials are gathering documentation in the form of photos from the time the old structure was used as a school before 1975.

County staff also told the board that if the building does get historical designation, the county would have to maintain it and any major changes to the building will require state approval.

• The commissioners agreed to schedule a time in their April 12 agenda to allow a discussion about Spring Hill Fire Rescue. Officials with Spring Hill have been trying to work out a way for the county to continue to collect property tax to keep the system operating.

Spring Hill voters in two separate actions approved independence and then voted to not allow the fire board to tax residents to run the service. Attorneys for both the county and the Clerk of the Circuit Court say that can't be done the way Spring Hill officials describe.

Spring Hill Fire Rescue plans to bring their attorney, who has a different legal perspective, to the commission meeting.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Budget adjustment rankles Hernando County commissioner 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 9:03pm]

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