BROOKSVILLE — Last week's painful budget workshop brought everything into focus for Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton.
Even after hours of discussion, lines of residents begging for their parks and services not to be cut, and constitutional officers arguing that they could cut no further, the County Commission was still more than $4 million dollars away from its goal.
Parks were still on the chopping block. Nine employees were set to get pink slips.
Commissioners even began discussing something they never talk about, at least not in the recent past — a possible increase in the property tax rate.
Now was the time, Hamilton decided, to talk about the real changes that are needed to shrink government, but it was going to take an enormous effort and tremendous buy-in from everyone in county government.
Most of all, public officials would have to agree to give up some of their turf.
"What taxpayers want is their parks to be open and the police to come to their house when they call and the fire truck to show up when they need it,'' Hamilton said. "They don't care how many lawyers we have or our human resources department.''
Hamilton's proposal: push forward with consolidation of the support functions of county government, including the constitutional offices and even the School Board. He wants to centralize services such as information technology, purchasing, human resources, fleet maintenance, risk management and legal services.
"We are a high-cost, high-overhead organization, and it has to start changing,'' Hamilton said late last week. "It's the services on the front line that people need.''
He pointed to the proposed 2011-12 budget of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, saying the sheriff's support staff alone is enough to run the internal departments for all of county government, plus the constitutional offices.
"All these artificial boundaries of turf, the economy is requiring us to look at differently,'' Hamilton said. "We're giving less and less value to the people that pay the bills, and they are our customers.''
Hamilton knows solving the turf issue is not going to be easy.
"Some will see it as anarchy,'' he said, aware of the level of cooperation he has seen in some cases.
Soon after Nienhuis became sheriff, Hamilton floated an idea to him to take over human resources for the county and possibly other entities, and Nienhuis immediately said no.
At last week's budget workshop, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes told Hamilton that she disagreed with him about "99 percent of the time.''
Even members of Hamilton's own leadership team have voiced opposition to some of his consolidation ideas.
He recently asked Environmental and Transportation Services to take the next step in moving all Geographic Information Services to the office of the property appraiser, and the request immediately generated e-mails from his directors in those areas saying it would be complicated.
As revenue has fallen over the past several years, the county has largely survived by using reserves that built up during the boom years and by allowing attrition to shrink the staff. But Hamilton and commissioners have noted that the board-controlled staff has shrunk to bare bones.
Even with layoff notices sent last week, the workers were all front-line people providing direct services.
"We're going in the wrong direction,'' Hamilton said "We clearly need to be looking at something more comprehensive.''
Shrinking the cost of government is necessary, he said, because no one believes that the economic conditions are going to turn around anytime soon.
"An expected return of an exuberant housing market is not even being discussed today by anybody with a logical thought,'' he said. "Everything we do has got to lower our cost of the way we operate.''
As part of his master plan, Hamilton announced that he is considering terminating some directors, managers and supervisors, rewriting their job descriptions and then readvertising the jobs at lower salaries.
The former workers could apply, but the jobs would also be open to outside applicants.
That would allow the county to adjust salaries and bring them in line with the pay of the rank-and-file and those in the private sector, he said.
Commissioners said they generally supported the idea of adjusting management salaries, although there is not universal support for Hamilton's method. Each said that all ideas should remain on the table as the commission tries to make up the millions of dollars the county is still short.
Hamilton is also seeking larger budget cuts from Nienhuis and from Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, neither of whom hit their budget-cutting targets.
Sikes didn't hit her goal either, but she is having to take responsibility for the issuing of driver's licenses in the new year and must add workers and provide training. Her revenue isn't enough to keep up with the new responsibilities, and Hamilton is proposing using a special reserve to offset the cost.
The reserve is also being eyed to make up for the $1.3 million in tax refunds the county will have to pay out because of adjustments in property values. Hamilton proposes paying those back with proceeds the county hopes to receive from legal challenges on those values.
To offset the reserves that will be used, Hamilton suggests moving the judicial fund and capital fund into reserves temporarily.
Such a move, he said, would allow the county time to make the fundamental changes necessary to shrink the size of government — time that is needed to make inroads with the constitutional officers.
"We need to get smarter at working together to support each other,'' he said.
County government has already made some inroads in consolidation.
Consolidated dispatch for emergencies is just a few years old. The sheriff has taken on emergency management and the jail in recent years. The property appraiser has begun to take on the GIS operation, and the clerk now oversees information technology, coordinating with the city of Brooksville as well.
Former Sheriff Richard Nugent "said no to the jail a hundred times before he said yes,'' said Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who was hopeful that Hamilton's success with Nugent could be duplicated with other constitutional officers.
He said consolidation will have to come through cooperation because "I do not believe there is any way in hell that we can make them do it.''
Stabins noted that if there was ever a time to try to consolidate further, it is now, when the sheriff is new and not deeply tied to his staff. Also, several of the other constitutional officers are nearing retirement, he said, and that might help.
"It'll be a new face of government,'' Stabins said.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes was less optimistic, but also hopeful that more consolidation could be achieved.
"People are so protective of their kingdom. It's their turf,'' he said. "It's a hard nut to crack …but here in a small county like this, we could do it.''
Dukes said that if true consolidation were attempted, each department could "pick an ace team'' from the existing workers in each field. "I'm open to anything that is going to save taxpayer dollars,'' he said.
Before the economy got so bad, government workers routinely said, "don't touch my department," said Commissioner John Druzbick, "but right now that doesn't work anymore.''
He is working with a group of business leaders from the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. The group had been looking at county departments, but those are already so depleted that they are now turning their attention to consolidation, Druzbick said.
"Every government agency in the county is having somewhat of a budget problem,'' said Commission Chairman Jim Adkins. "Whatever we can group together and do, we could have some substantial savings. We have got to get government down to take care of the people we work for before we ask for a tax increase.''
While Hamilton acknowledges that the decision to raise the tax rate is a policy decision of the board, it is not one he is willing to recommend.
"We are not doing things at the lowest possible cost,'' Hamilton said. "More taxes and more money coming in only provides fuel for the status quo.''
Consolidation might be a huge job, but Adkins said it's more a "change in mindset.''
Commissioner Dave Russell said that in the current market, "nothing is sacrosanct'' and every expense needs to be examined.
As for getting the constitutional officers on board, Russell said a methodical approach can work.
"It's one step at a time,'' he said. "It's one interlocal agreement at a time, and we've already begun the process.''
Hamilton said he knows that some will consider consolidation simply a way for him to build his own base of power, but he said that is not the plan. In fact, he said, he encourages other entities to take on portions of the county's overall operation.
He noted that his own office now operates with less than half the staff as when he became administrator.
"This is not about control or trying to gain turf, but we're trying to eliminate turf at all levels,'' he said. "I don't care who controls it as long as it controls costs.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.