BROOKSVILLE — After months of agonizing cuts to personnel and services, the County Commission on Tuesday approved a $420 million final budget for next year with a tax rate for the general fund 3.5 percent higher than the current levy.
Commissioners were warned last year that, even after several years of drastically scaled back spending, this budget session would be grim. Those predictions were true, and the forecast for next year is no better as falling home values continue to erode property tax revenue and force deep cuts.
Some workers lost their jobs, insurance benefits to county workers were cut, and the state Legislature demanded that public workers contribute 3 percent of their salaries toward retirement. Furloughs were also ordered.
For a time, it seemed county parks and other facilities would close, but county officials urged citizens to step up and save the parks and various private groups did just that. The most recent of those agreements with the community was approved earlier Tuesday when a citizens group signed an agreement with the county to run Stewy's Skate Park in Spring Hill.
The cuts have meant a longer wait for some Hernando services and fewer live voices at the end of the telephone line. Even the county's main switchboard now offers a recorded menu of choices.
Wrestling with a multimillion-dollar deficit earlier in the year, the county's leadership team turned to the constitutional officers to cut more from their county-funded budgets.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis was able to trim 5 percent of his expenses but fell $400,000 shy of the county's goal. Money to make up that difference came from employee furloughs and other unspent money rolled forward from the current year's budget, according to George Zoettlein, county budget manager.
Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams' budget is more than $200,000 less than what she requested. In a last-ditch effort, Williams wrote commissioners on Tuesday asking for funds to oversee two elections and redistricting and the notifications she must make by law in the coming fiscal year.
"The current financial direction the board is taking can potentially jeopardize the right to vote of the citizens of Hernando County and the electoral process as a whole,'' she wrote.
At the evening hearing she repeated her concerns, saying, "I just wanted to go on the record that I am not satisfied with what you have dealt me.''
Some of the other budget highlights:
• The overall budget for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, totals $420 million compared to the current year's total adjusted budget of $414.9 million. The general fund budget for the new year is $99.5 million compared to $103 million this year.
The general fund numbers are actually further apart because the new budget reflects an additional $7 million in judicial fund reserves that the county will move into the general fund reserve.
• The approved tax rate to support the county's general fund is 5.6279 mills compared to the current tax rate of 5.4394 mills. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value.
For the owner of a home appraised at $150,000 with the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill to support the county's general fund would be $562.79 or $18.85 more than last year.
The County Commission chose that level of rate increase to match the decrease in the rate that had been needed to support the water management district's basin boards, which were disbanded this year.
During the budget hearing, county resident Anna Liisa Covell said taking that savings away from taxpayers was wrong and that, no matter the small hit on her taxes, the millage rate was an increase.
"You are raising taxes,'' she told them. "You didn't dig hard enough in your back pocket.''
• In addition to the general fund tax rate, homeowners pay other smaller tax rates for various county functions including the transportation trust fund, the health unit trust fund and other funds depending on where a property is located within the county.
No tax will be assessed for the new fiscal year in the environmentally sensitive lands fund. Instead, the commission approved transferring that same amount of tax levy — .0844 of a mill — to a new mosquito control tax.
At the budget hearing two weeks ago, the commission thought the mosquito tax was dead because Commissioner Wayne Dukes voted against it and they thought it had to be a unanimous vote. Since then, the county attorney's office did more research and determined that only a simple majority of the board needed to vote in favor.
Dukes again voted against the mosquito control tax, saying he knew that some people supported the sensitive lands fund and mosquito control should be funded from the general fund.
That new tax would generate $8.44 in tax for a home valued at $150,000.
Commissioner Dave Russell said the commission still plans to ask voters next year whether they still want to levy taxes for sensitive lands and if they want to levy the tax for mosquito control.
Property owners also pay other assessments on their tax bill to other government entities including the schools and the city of Brooksville.
The general tax rates were approved with a 3 to 2 vote with commissioners Jim Adkins and Dukes voting no.
The countywide budget was approved in a 4 to 1 vote with Dukes voting no.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.