Hernando commission gives initial OK to budget

BROOKSVILLE — The County Commission on Tuesday tentatively approved a budget for 2010-11, while warning of deeper spending cuts and difficult decisions next year.

The $335.4 million budget includes a $93.3 million general fund spending plan for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That compares to this year's total budget of $400.8 million and general fund of $111.2 million.

The property tax rate to fund the spending plan remained unchanged from last year, with the total countywide rate holding at 6.3431 mills, the equivalent of $6.34 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a home appraised at $150,000 with the $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax to support county services would be $634.

The final hearing and approval is set for Sept. 28.

At the board's direction, budget director George Zoettlein found reserve money and funds that had been set aside for the cleanup of the old Department of Public Works site to come up with $141,500 to save four jobs, including a code enforcement employee, a secretary in the cooperative extension service, an environmental planner and a specialist in health and human services.

Commission Chairman John Druzbick expressed concern about what lies ahead. "What do we have planned for next year?'' he asked.

"A lot of hard work,'' Zoettlein said, noting that even if property values slow their slide, the commission starts the year $6 million in the red.

"We're spending money we don't have'' by approving a budget balanced on reserves, echoed Commissioner Dave Russell. "This is tough and it's going to get tougher.''

Zoettlein told commissioners that there are no more reserves to balance next year's budget and that he wouldn't recommend touching the reserves that do exist, which are required to be untouched by the county's own budget policy.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said the time had come to call in an expert to determine whether a judicial center is needed. There is $13 million set aside for the center and Stabins had advocated using some of that money to get through the tough budget.

Druzbick pointed out that using that money would still be spending reserve funds.

Commissioners called for all county officials to tighten their budgets and be willing to work together. Commissioner Rose Rocco said the county needs to think positively about making changes to become more efficient.

"It's not all doom and gloom,'' she said.

Earlier in the day, the board grappled with other budget-related issues, ranging from a management reshuffling to engineering services. Facing the prospect of paying a private engineer $155 an hour to keep up with projects for a short time, the commission agreed to hire an in-house county engineer.

The urgent need for an engineer arose when the only civil engineer on county staff, Chris Wert, resigned. While Wert signed off on several ongoing projects before he left, county officials have been working closely with the state Department of Transportation to make sure they don't lose funds for upcoming projects.

Interim public works director Susan Goebel asked to be allowed to use one of the county's rotating contract engineers, HDR Engineering Inc. for up to three months to keep county projects going. The cost would not exceed $72,000.

Rocco had another idea. Instead of spending $155 an hour, why not bring Wert back at his annual salary of $92,000 or less. Rocco said Wert was willing to return and had even offered to take a salary cut.

Goebel said that Wert was welcome to submit a resume for the county engineer job.

County Administrator David Hamilton explained that, under the reorganized public works department, there would be just two engineers with two specialties compared to three with one specialty before. The civil engineer who would fill the county engineer position should be of the highest quality that the county can find, he said.

Russell had suggested using a private engineering firm, but on Tuesday he noted that Goebel's cost analysis showed a private firm would cost three times as much. That was all he needed to see to abandon the idea, he said.

Another budget issue settled earlier in the day concerned cuts to mosquito control. Previously, commissioners were expected to cut spraying in half; end the sentinel chicken program, which detects mosquito-borne illnesses; and cut educational and preventative work.

Commissioners weren't satisfied with the plan and sent it back for another try. The program, as approved by the board, would cut only about a third of the spraying, would shuffle staff duties to keep the sentinel chicken program going and would retain education and outreach programs in the winter.

The changes cut the department's budget by $94,430 to $564,295.

The commission also approved the management reorganization plan presented to them by Hamilton. The plan groups together economic development, the county airport and tourism activities and has them answering to Hamilton. He also added back the hiring of a new tourism development director when Sue Rupe retires later this year.

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

Hernando commission gives initial OK to budget 09/14/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 14, 2010 9:19pm]

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