BROOKSVILLE — Still $4.2 million away from a balanced budget, the Hernando County Commission grappled Tuesday with a batch of what County Administrator David Hamilton called "politically precarious'' choices.
The board took no action, hoping instead its team can successfully negotiate staff furloughs and pay cuts with the Teamsters Union. Board members also anticipate the county's elected constitutional officers will consider staff furloughs and more budget cuts to close the gap.
Also, the board held off deciding whether to use its budget stabilization reserve to fix the shortfall.
Citizens urged commissioners and Hamilton to cut their own salaries and those of top leaders rather than hurt lower-paid county workers. Others just urged the commission to find someplace else to cut.
But commissioners and Hamilton stated publicly that they are getting down to the point that something serious has to happen.
"We're getting to the point that we're going to have to start closing things,'' Hamilton told commissioners, promising that if he had to ask for stabilization reserve funds to balance the budget that he would spend those dollars last in the next fiscal year.
Commissioner Dave Russell noted that, if it came to that, it would give the county a little more time to find other ways to trim expenses.
The special reserve comes with a special feature. It must be paid back within two years and the Property Appraiser has already predicted another property value drop of 5 percent next year, which means further reduced property tax revenue for the 2012-13 budget.
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said the reserve might not be necessary if Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams trim their spending back to what the county sought earlier this summer. That would amount to about $1.2 million in cuts to their budgets.
Russell said that the County Commission can't force policy decisions on the constitutional officers "but there is one thing that we do control and that's the budget. … Let's just put that out there on the table and let if flop around awhile.''
"Sounds like a good idea to me,'' Adkins said.
The constitutional officers also voiced no interest in participating in what the county has termed Furlough Friday, the plan to shut down the commission-controlled nonessential departments on the last Friday of the month for 10 months.
Commissioner John Druzbick said he was concerned that the constitutional officers aren't considering participation. He was also concerned about the union's unwillingness to see furloughs as a sign of "how desperate we are to balance the budget.''
Also on the table are 5 percent cuts to employees making more than $60,000 per year. Because furloughs cover much of that cut, an additional 1.15 percent cut would be required of those higher-paid county workers.
Area business owner Joe Lemieux called the 5 percent reduction "a sick joke',' "an insult'' and a "slap in the face" to taxpayers footing the bill of the salaries of the commission and top county workers. He called for major cuts in the commissioners' salaries.
Former County Commissioner Bobbi Mills told the board that the morale of county employees was awful and that the "grossly overpaid'' county leadership need to be cut, not the low-paid workers.
"There have got to be other ways of saving money,'' she said.
"We have looked and we have cut,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins. "This is a compromise of sorts.''
Druzbick agreed. "We have looked at everything,'' he said.
But he said the county had reached a point to ask, "Are you, the public, willing to pay to keep the government going.''
Because of the past several years of falling property tax revenue from falling values, the county has had to cut to the bone. "It's no longer running government the way that we did before,'' he said.
"We're still very far behind the 8-ball'' in reaching the balance, he said.
In other business:
• Commissioners favored a lease with Auro Community Cannery to operate the Little Rock Cannery. The commission wanted to alter the lease proposal that would have allowed the nonprofit, which is affiliated with physicians group Access Healthcare, to ask for the property to be donated to them after 21 months. Instead, the board asked for options to be built into the lease, including a long-term lease with the nonprofit.
• The commission agreed to advertise a public hearing in October for a paving assessment in an area of Royal Highlands in which only some of the roads have enough signed petitions for a road paving. The access roads around the neighborhood have the support of resident property owners, but not enough owners of undeveloped property in the area of Marvelwood and Hexam roads. Commissioners said they wanted to move forward and not let absent owners stop residents from improving their neighborhood.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.