Facing leaner budget, Hernando officials weigh priorities

BROOKSVILLE — Facing another multimillion-dollar shortfall for the 2012-13 fiscal year, county budget gurus already are posing tough questions that county commissioners will grapple with in the coming months.

Is it time to raise the gas tax or the sales tax? Should a separate taxing unit be established for the sheriff and jail? Should the judicial center reserve be used to cover a shortfall in post-employment benefit funds?

Should departments be combined or disbanded, and, if so, which ones? Should more fees be added to help pay for services? And what will the impact of all of this be on employee pay and benefits?

It's deja vu all over again for county officials in the throes of yet another year of financial belt tightening.

To get started, chief procurement officer Russell Wetherington sent a list of 18 questions and issues to commissioners earlier this month. He asked for responses by Tuesday. He got a few, but the real discussion is slated to begin during the commission's first budget workshop on Feb. 7.

"This is so we have some guidance to go on so we know where to focus our energies,'' said Wetherington, who, in the absence of a county administrator, was appointed by the commission to help build the 2012-13 spending plan.

Along with budget manager George Zoettlein and finance director Amy Gillis, Wetherington is gathering input from county directors and managers. And even front line employees soon will be asked for ideas about how to make county government more efficient.

Efficiency is going to be key to making up the revenue shortfall in the coming year, Wetherington said. The county staff has been stretched thin by three straight years of cuts, and the reductions have made it more difficult for employees to maintain traditional levels of service to the public.

As one example of efficiency, if the county were to adopt a wireless meter-reading system, staff would be lost, but the county would save money and still be able to provide the service needed, Wetherington said.

Also invited to discuss budget issues at this early point in the year are the county's five constitutional officers, who have expressed an interest in being part of the conversation. Wetherington said he hopes to meet with them in the coming days to discuss issues such as employee health insurance and other benefits.

Benefits for employees in the constitutional offices are more generous than what was proposed for other county employees and, for that reason, members of the Teamsters union soundly defeated their contract proposal recently. Negotiations with the employees continue and may end up at impasse soon.

Wetherington also poses questions about some of the board's past practices and policies. He asks whether the county should change its reserve policy, an issue brought up by commissioners recently. In addition, he asks whether the county wants to adopt a policy whereby recurring expenses could only be paid with recurring revenues.

For the last several years, the county has spent down its reserves, which accrued when tax revenues were rising, to offset shortfalls when revenue fell. But those are now gone.

The Property Appraiser's Office estimates a property tax revenue reduction of $2.5 million to the general fund for the coming year, and lesser amounts to other funds.

John Emerson, chief deputy to the property appraiser, noted in a memo to county officials that the ongoing problem of sinkholes in Hernando has contributed greatly to falling property values.

In 2011, the Property Appraiser's Office received 1,655 requests for value reductions due to sinkhole reports. Property value is lowered by 50 percent once sinkhole activity is confirmed, and in 2011 that amounted to a decrease of at least $130 million.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Facing leaner budget, Hernando officials weigh priorities 01/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2012 5:37pm]

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