Friday, January 19, 2018
News Roundup

Financial pressure won't ease up in 2013-14, Hernando budget manager says

BROOKSVILLE — Even as county commissioners wrapped up their final budget hearing last week and approved a tax rate and spending plan for 2012-13, budget manager George Zoettlein warned them that the bottle of bitter pills wasn't empty yet.

With the 2012-13 fiscal year just getting under way Monday, Zoettlein's sights were already set on 2013-14, and the news was not good. Five years of leaving positions open, downsizing departments and borrowing from reserves won't make budget decisions next year any easier, he said.

The county will face an estimated $9 million gap between projected revenues and expenditures, and commissioners will have to figure out a way to either bring in more money or make additional cuts.

That was not the news anyone wanted to hear, including a group of county employees who arrived at the public hearing just as it was adjourning. Some of them — members of the Teamsters union — had been circling the county government center with signs.

The signs urged fair treatment of county employees and complained that the county wasn't working harder to take care of its workers, who are paying more for health insurance and who haven't seen raises in five years.

County Administrator Len Sossamon stayed behind to talk to the employees for about an hour. But there was no way to deny the reality: Money will be even tighter next year.

The Teamsters and the county have been at an impasse for months in contract negotiations. The two sides expect to meet with a mediator in November.

The continuing decline of property values is a primary reason that the 2013-14 budget will present a challenge. Other issues include a series of state constitutional amendments on the November ballot that, if approved, will deepen property tax exemptions, and continuing sinkhole claims that lower home values. Combined, those factors are expected to cause a decrease of about $3.2 million in tax revenue for the county next year.

Other problems lie ahead.

During 2013-14, the county will have to spend about $2 million from the general fund to keep county libraries open. For the last few years, the libraries have largely operated with state grant funds that have now dried up.

Also, to plug holes in this year's budget, the commission used $2.3 million in reserves, and those dollars will have to be offset somehow for 2013-14.

In addition, Zoettlein said, the county can count on losing an additional $1.6 million in uncollected taxes.

As he draws up a budget, Zoettlein is required by law to assume that at least 95 percent of the property taxes levied will be collected. But the collection rate has been running closer to 91 percent, and the purchase of tax certificates is down as well.

Not even figured into those calculations is the roughly $680,000 the county might have to allocate in the general fund to pay for mosquito control if voters reject a referendum to keep a mosquito control operating tax.

And Zoettlein doesn't know how much more it might cost if the county must go back to paying the full cost of employee retirement benefits. A state mandate last year requires government employees to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their retirement, but the issue is being challenged in court.

On Thursday, Zoettlein said work on the 2013-14 budget will start immediately. He will estimate expected revenues and inform county departments how much more needs to be cut. It will be up to the commission to decide what goes.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the county is going to have to look deeply into its operations and find where additional streamlining is possible. He said he, other commissioners and the county administrator are all thinking of different areas where they can be more efficient.

Knowing that at least two new commissioners will be seated after the November election gives Dukes hope.

"Maybe new eyes will see something we haven't,'' he said. "I'm hoping that new faces will bring some new ideas.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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