BROOKSVILLE — In her role as Hernando County's chief financial officer, Karen Nicolai this week chose to share with county commissioners her concerns about the county's fiscal direction, or lack thereof.
Nicolai, the clerk of circuit court, is uneasy about several trends, including the board's reliance on reserve funds to bridge budget shortfalls in recent years, and sees more trouble ahead if the board does not follow a detailed financial plan.
But an undercurrent to her message, notably a subtle urging that the board dump her sometimes-nemesis County Administrator David Hamilton, and the timing and manner in which she shared it, are raising questions.
Nicolai and her office's attorney, prominent lawyer Tom Hogan, and county finance director Amy Gillis met one-on-one with each commissioner in Hogan's Brooksville office.
Conspicuously absent from these sessions was Hamilton himself, who was on vacation this week. In fact Nicolai said she hadn't talked to Hamilton in months.
Nicolai said her intention was to urge the board to demand that Hamilton produce a master plan on how to downsize county government, which she told them was the responsibility of the county administrator.
The board should demand that Hamilton give them a balanced budget and one does not reach that goal by spending any more reserves, she urged.
Not all of the commissioners shared that view.
"David Hamilton has a leadership team,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said. "He has given his team a percentage to come in at. These (budgets) come to the administrator. He sorts it out and brings it to us. Ultimately it's our decision.''
Commissioner John Druzbick, however, said Hamilton and his leadership team need to bring a balanced budget for discussion. Commissioners choosing where the cuts were coming from is micromanaging, he said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins came away from his meeting with the clear impression that Nicolai was urging the board to fire Hamilton.
"I think she was trying to say the same thing I heard when she gathered the constitutional officers together two years ago,'' he said, "and that is that we're never going to get out of this mess until we fire David Hamilton because he is not providing the kind of leadership and planning for this economic quagmire that Karen thinks he should.''
For her part, Nicolai said the point of the meetings was "to share my thoughts and share Tom Hogan's thoughts. Every county and every government is going through crisis. We're concerned about the future.''
For example, Nicolai said, the county recently got a notice that its rating for water and sewer revenue bonds has slipped from "stable" to "negative" which could mean higher interest rates on future borrowing.
Under the Florida Constitution, the clerk oversees the county's finance department and is responsible for all functions such as investments, payroll, and debt management. The County Commission approves the budget.
Nicolai said she never meant to point the finger at Hamilton specifically. She said she feels obliged since she is responsible for the county's financial oversight to point out certain issues.
She noted that the commission "has been pretty adamant about not raising taxes, but when you decide to do that, you have to cut spending.''
Still, the county gets hung up on relatively minor issues such as money for the Little Rock Cannery and whether or not to charge park fees while having no master plan for downsizing, Nicolai said.
"We still don't have a plan for where we're going,'' she said, adding that in her view, the county administrator is supposed to make that plan.
"I'm just asking everyone to step up,'' she said.
Stabins said that Nicolai, along with Hernando's other constitutional officers, should heed that call themselves.
Since 2007, he said, the departments under the commission's control have cut their spending by 39 percent. In the same time, the constitutional officers trimmed their budgets a mere 4 percent.
With a projected revenue shortfall of $5.2 million next year, the commission is now looking at cutting another 17 percent from its budgets, while the constitutionals are being asked to slice 5 percent.
"That's not fair,'' Stabins said.
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said he also heard the message at his meeting with Nicolai that Hamilton was not doing his job but, "I just took that as information.''
He said he will meet with Hamilton when he returns next week to talk about the upcoming budget process and how to sort out what services must be maintained and what the county just can't afford anymore.
Simply continuing to cut across the board hurts some departments much more than others, he said.
Druzbick said Hamilton might need to read his job description again because he needs to bring the commission a fully balanced budget rather than a partially balanced budget early in the budget discussions.
Stabins said that, despite his own differences with Hamilton in the past, the criticism this time is not warranted. It is the commission's job, not the administrator's, he said, to approve a balanced budget each year.
When Nicolai says the county has no plan for downsizing, Stabins replied, "Ask Pat Fagan.'' Fagan's job as parks and recreation manager was eliminated by the commission this week.
Stabins said Hamilton's resistance to conducting government according to the "old ways of Brooksville" behind closed doors has earned him a target on his back.
"He has upset the apple cart in many ways, and has challenged the old ways of Brooksville more than any other previous county administrator,'' Stabins said.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he didn't hear anything from Nicolai that surprised him. His whole focus has been on cutting spending and he pointed to the record he is building on the board to even reject federal grant money because "my Dad said don't write a check that you can't cash.''
Dukes said he agreed that the commission is going to need more direct input from Hamilton in fixing the current budget situation.
"He said that by 2012 we're going to be broke, but we haven't reduced spending, not enough anyway,'' Dukes said.
Russell said he walked away from the meeting not hearing anything alarming or unexpected. "We are solvent. But obviously, we're going to have to make some adjustments,'' he said.
"One of the basic tenants of leadership is that you surround yourself with competence. That's what David has done, surround himself with competent people,'' Russell said. "I don't know of a better way of doing it.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.