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Hernando budget pinches get an airing at commission workshop

BROOKSVILLE — Thursday was Day 2 for county commissioners to hear about programs and services that could be lost in the efforts to make up for a $10.4 million shortfall in the general fund.

The lineup for Thursday's workshop was the elected constitutional officers and county departments with functions not funded through the general fund.

The featured speaker was Sheriff Richard Nugent, who stressed that while the calls for service to his agency continue to climb, the number of his employees has dropped.

Last year, he noted, he cut 17 full-time and nine part-time workers. In the coming budget year, Nugent proposes cutting nine more full-time positions. His cuts total $1 million, bringing his budget request to $30,957,607.

The county's 2011 budget totals $89.9 million for the general fund and $300 million for all funds. That compares to this year's budget of $123 million in the general fund and $440 million overall.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins asked Nugent about red-light cameras as a way to both make the county safer and to raise money through traffic fines. Nugent said he would favor the cameras if statistics showed they would make roads safer and not be just a money-maker.

Commissioner Jim Adkins suggested that changing the duration of the yellow signal might do the same thing for public safety.

Several commissioners urged Nugent to make use of his captive workforce once he takes over the jail from a private firm in August. Nugent said he intended to use inmates to keep up the jail. Larger facilities issues were up to county maintenance, he said repeatedly.

Nugent also said he will be paying more for detention deputies than current operator Corrections Corp. of America pays. But that is because he is asking more of his employees, he said.

As he has worked to hire staff for the jail, several CCA employees interviewed have not met his standard. Some have been rejected simply for their level of admitted drug use, he said.

Nugent also said he already follows the mantra of County Administrator David Hamilton: "More management and fewer managers.''

Hamilton repeated that mantra this week and announced plans for shrinking the management ranks in county government. He is also examining the appropriateness of high salaries for managers.

Nugent, who wants to cut jail costs by $500,000, said his command staff plan for the jail will be 14, compared to the 32 for CCA. In his agency, Nugent said his command staff has shrunk from 10 in 1997 when there were 273 employees to six today with 378 employees.

Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Nickerson also responded to questions about management versus front-line workers. Hamilton had specifically questioned if the fire department needed 36 managers.

Nickerson showed the distribution of chiefs and captains at the stations, noting he staffs shifts 24 hours a day. A union representative for the firefighters also questioned Hamilton's comments, and Hamilton said he would meet with them later to talk about the issue.

In his presentation, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek pointed out that several of the nine positions he has eliminated from his budget since 2008 have been top level managers. This year he lost the equivalent of 41/2 workers.

Mazourek also showed commissioners they had been reducing tax rates over the last 10 years and how tax reforms were "eating away at county funds.''

Commissioners are still considering increasing the tax rate for the coming year to make up for some if not all of the $7 million lost to falling property values.

George Zoettlein, budget and administrative services division director, told commissioners that even levying the full amount to make up the difference would still mean a lower tax bill for 70 percent of the county's homesteaded properties because values have continued to fall.

Zoettlein is required by law to bring a balanced budget to the board by its next meeting July 13. Even with the cuts proposed so far, the county still needs to make up $1.2 million to reach that balance.

By the end of Thursday's session, there was a long list of issues that commissioners left to county staff to research, such as suggestions made by employees and community through a survey sent out by Stabins, such as not paying employees for their holidays off, furlough days and a shortened work week rather than the large number of staff reductions.

A referendum item asking the public to allow the tax that raises money to buy land for preservation to also help pay for park operations and maintenance is also still in development.

County staff and commissioners are also seeking more detail on parking meters at county parks and fees for using the courthouse parking garage. They are also considering cutting stipends for county employee cell phones and negotiating higher fees from sports leagues using the county's facilities.

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

Hernando budget pinches get an airing at commission workshop 06/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 9:19pm]

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