BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission has shown a lack of leadership, a lack of transparency and failed to provide the public with needed information during this year's budget discussions, a constituent told commissioners in an email Tuesday.
The author urged commissioners to consider major cuts in county employee benefits as part of the budget talks they were scheduled to have later that day.
Allowing county employees 12 unpaid holidays a year, she wrote, was "over the moon.'' Eliminating seven of those could save the county $1.7 million annually, she figured.
The practice of county employees accruing time off and taking large lump-sum payments when they leave county employment is a luxury "we simply cannot afford,'' she wrote.
Providing some health insurance coverage for an employee's family, for vision, dental and life insurance policies, "are all nice insurances to have,'' the constituent wrote, "but I venture to say that a large segment of the county population cannot afford these coverages, which means that the county should not be increasing their taxes to provide a benefit their constituents cannot afford.''
The email baffled county Commissioner John Druzbick.
The reason? The author: Catie Blue, assistant finance director to Sheriff Al Nienhuis and the recipient of some of the same kinds of government benefits she was criticizing.
Nienhuis said Thursday he had been unaware that Blue had written or emailed the memo to commissioners. He said he was disappointed, did not agree with much of the memo and wished that Blue had talked to him before sending it, though he defended her right to do so as a private citizen.
Blue said the memo was strictly her opinion as a taxpayer, and she said she could make no comment about the internal operations of the sheriff. Her comments, she said, were to some extent venting about the current state of the county budget.
The commission is facing a projected $5.8 million shortfall in the budget's general fund for 2012-13. Scenarios the commission will consider on Tuesday include a menu of difficult choices, including an increase in the property tax rate; closing libraries and parks; shutting down the Community Relations Department, the Cooperative Extension Service and the hazardous materials program, and parceling out cuts to constitutional officers, including millions of dollars in further cuts to the sheriff's budget.
"We're in trouble,'' Blue said about the overall budget situation during an interview Thursday. "I get frustrated, and perhaps the memo was an expression of my frustration.''
In the memo, Blue suggested that commissioners are talking about a tax rate increase too soon.
"While I am not against a justified tax increase as part of the solution, it needs to be the last resort, not the first,'' she wrote.
The surprise expressed by Druzbick and other commissioners to the email was in large part because the commission traditionally questions the sheriff's spending during budget season. The sheriff's spending accounts for 60 percent of the county's $67 million general fund operating budget.
Commissioner Dave Russell said that while he welcomes input from all people on how to make the county's spending plan work, in the case of Blue's memo, "it might be more appropriate to shine the light internally over at the Sheriff's Office in terms of cuts to personnel and cuts to service levels.''
Russell said that, while the county has cut significant numbers of employees over the last few years, it has been able to maintain a good level of service. He said he hasn't seen the same kinds of personnel cuts by the sheriff.
Druzbick echoed that concern.
"How much has the general fund cut its budget, and how much has the sheriff cut his budget?'' he asked.
He said he was also frustrated by Blue's comments that the commission should look at other ways to cut the budget before raising the tax rate, which is something commissioners will consider voting on next week.
"I don't know that the public understands what we've been doing,'' Druzbick said. "I don't think it's the first solution that we have been looking at. We've been working on the budget since January. We've made numerous requests of staff to reduce the expenditures.''
As for cutting employee holidays and benefits, both Russell and Druzbick noted that they had attempted to do that, offering a contract to the Teamsters that would reduce holidays, impose furloughs, cut back the payouts when an employee leaves and reduce health benefits.
The Teamsters overwhelmingly rejected the contract, and the county had gone to impasse in negotiations. Talks regarding insurance continue.
Blue said that, for her part, she is willing to take on whatever cuts in benefits other county employees might face in the future.
"How can you ask our citizens to raise their taxes to provide more benefits to employees than our citizens themselves can afford?'' she asked.
Blue, who has worked at the Sheriff's Office since April 2008, earns an annual salary of $73,000, with a benefits package worth about $13,000.
Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.