BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator David Hamilton knew he'd opened the floodgates as soon as he started his first community budget workshop on Tuesday evening.
He wanted to know how the government he recently took charge of has been doing its job, what services citizens value and what are not so prized. He will use the information to steer spending cuts this summer.
At the first of six planned meetings, Hamilton got all of that plus an education on some widely held beliefs on how government relates to the citizens of Hernando County. The meeting was in Kennedy Park near South Brooksville.
Community activist Paul Boston asked how the county could talk to South Brooksville residents about budget cuts when "there are little or no services given to this community'' by the county.
He said some in the largely African-American community see it as "an organized plot by the government'' to keep the area residents undereducated, in low-wage jobs and "entrapped.''
Boston also expressed frustration that county monies spent in the area were only to correct previous problems the county created there, such as the contaminated site of the old Department of Public Works complex.
Brooksville Vice Mayor Frankie Burnett also criticized the county's efforts to fix the contamination that had been known for 20 years. Burnett said it was time for the county to "start doing better'' for the residents of the area by putting more money into needed improvements.
Joe Lemieux, a Hernando County business owner, tried to set the stage for Hamilton, who just arrived in Hernando County in March. He said within the past decade, the Ku Klux Klan still met openly in the county.
"If you don't believe that this is a racist community, then you don't know this community,'' he said. "That's what you've walked into.''
During the more than two-hour session, Hamilton told the two dozen residents that he heard their concerns and understood they were seeking some committed plan to help the community. He also agreed to return in June to discuss the proposed budget for capital improvements.
Hamilton also got an earful of comments about general concerns about wasteful spending and overpaid senior county staff. Lemieux said the county seemed interested in making budget cuts that would hurt the poorest people. Displaying a series of placards emblazoned with the salaries of top county department heads, he said Hamilton should cut those pay levels.
He noted that county Parks and Recreation director Pat Fagan "makes about $95,000'' and the county allows him time off to go to his other paid job, as an elected School Board member. "There's something wrong with that,'' he said. "These people don't deserve all this money.''
Ana Trinque, with the county's Republican Executive Committee, blamed some of what she called bloated salaries on the former Human Resources director Barbara Dupre, who had ordered salary studies that drove up paychecks.
Hamilton explained that he is in the process of discussing a streamlined county staff, is examining various aspects of the Human Resources department and is willing to examine the salary structure.
Hamilton spoke in detail about the county budget, noting the county expects to lose $13.5-million in property taxes because of Amendment 1, County Commission action and falling property values.
County staff also conducted a satisfaction survey of the audience on county services. The top county service priorities all related to public safety.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.