BROOKSVILLE — As Hernando County sharpens its budget ax, one proposal on the table is to park THE Bus for one day every week.
County staff members and Commissioner Jeff Stabins, the board's liaison to the county's transit service, told the Times on Tuesday that cutting back to four days is the most viable way to reduce costs with the least impact on riders. It's one of several options that commissioners will hear about next week.
The impending money crunch is leading to all manner of budget-cutting ideas, several of which interim County Administrator Larry Jennings spelled out to the board in broad terms Tuesday.
The 2009 budget might include new or increased fees for county parks and code violations. Directors will be looking for ways to run leaner operations. And the costs to run the county jail will take center stage.
Also, next week, commissioners will hear details on possibly taking the Sheriff's Office out of the budget and setting it up as its own taxing district.
Costs to operate THE Bus got plenty of attention last year from citizens demanding spending cuts. Stabins said Tuesday he wants to cut costs while not eliminating a needed service. Parking THE Bus one day meets that criteria, he said.
The transit system costs the county about $600,000 each year. Another $1-million in operating funds come from the state and federal budgets, which also pay for the buses. Dropping one day from the schedule will save the county roughly $200,000.
"We would be minimally disrupting the service but it would still be there to help those who really need it,'' said Ron Pianta, county planning director.
County staffers also recommend that maintenance be a county capital expense rather than having the operator contract include maintenance. The county then could do the maintenance itself or contract for it. Either way, it would mean all of the costs would be reimbursed to the county instead of the current 50 percent. That would save the county another $55,000.
While parking the transit system one day a week will impact the commuter who uses the service five days a week, Jennings said the thought has been that riders can find alternate transport one day a week. Cutting hours of operation each day would create more of burden.
Later Tuesday, Jennings told the board that the 2009 budget would include no new programs but several new initiatives. The county staff has been looking for ways to be more efficient and has been comparing Hernando's operations to other counties and analyzing what services to offer.
The skyrocketing costs of the jail also are under scrutiny. Jennings said the county staff has been busy talking to the sheriff and the judges about various related issues.
The county will continue trimming expenses, Jennings said. Last year, 43 county jobs were eliminated, 16 of those paid for through the general fund. Another 41 positions are open and are not being advertised, including 10 funded by the general fund.
Jennings said it was too early to say how much the county will have to cut spending, but he intends to continue to inform the community about the budget, something that incoming County Administrator David Hamilton has said he will do when he arrives March 17.
Stung by an onslaught of citizens seeking tax reform and a barrage of published misinformation about county spending last year, Jennings said the hope is that this summer will be different. "We want a discussion based on facts and based on service issues,'' he said.
Commissioner Dave Russell praised the staff's efforts. "My, my, my. We've come a long way since last year,'' he said.
Commissioners also heard about the crush of activity at the office of Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek. About 3,000 people have applied for the new senior, low-income homestead exemption, he said, while nearly 500 people have sought a ruling on portability of their assessment cap to a new home. Another 700 have already sought the exemption for tangible personal property and 1,000 new homestead exemptions had been filed.
He reported that on Monday alone, his office fielded 975 phone calls and 750 walk-ins.
In other action:
• Utilities director Joseph Stapf said that the Southwest Florida Water Management District had on Tuesday approved the consolidation of three county water use permits and increased the amount that can be pumped. The new permit is a combined average quantity of 24.4-million gallons per day.
• Commissioners approved four change orders for the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Station 3 restoration project. Fire officials have presented the county with seven other change orders on the same project in the past. Assistant Chief Bill Davies said some of the work was needed because the building had not been properly built in the mid 1980s and that fire officials hope to recover $65,000 from the original builder for those flaws.
• Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson told commissioners that his department and Brooksville fire officials have been preparing a proposal to shut down the county's fire station at the old hospital site, down the street from the Brooksville Fire Department. The closure of the station is one of a host of suggestions made in the recent fire study.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.