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Hernando commission opts for more cuts rather than higher tax rate

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis once again found his agency's budget in the crosshairs Tuesday.

Taking aim: a majority of county commissioners, who were unwilling to increase the tentative property tax rate to close a nearly $2 million shortfall in the general fund of the county's 2012-13 budget.

Given the size of the Sheriff's Office budget — nearly $40 million of the general fund — the agency's share of the gap is more than $1.3 million, county staffers said. Commissioners made it clear they expect Nienhuis to start looking for ways to cut.

"What you need to do is prepare to tell us what's going to happen if we short you $1.3 million," commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said.

Nienhuis said that kind of cut would force him to eliminate more than two dozen positions.

"You're talking at least 26 positions," Nienhuis told the board. "Those are going to have to be frontline people. You can't cut command stuff. They are already stretched very thin."

In the end, the board voted 3-2 to affirm its decision earlier this month to set the tentative millage rate for the general fund at 6.0851 mills — .4572 of a mill higher than last year.

That rate, at the time, was considered the rollback rate because, when applied to lower property values, it would bring in the same dollar total as last year. The rate would translate to $45.72 in additional tax for $100,000 of appraised taxable property value.

Last week, however, the state Department of Revenue notified county officials that they must calculate the rate based on the total taxable value of property for 2011-12 after the Value Adjustment Board voted to accept a challenge by cement giant Cemex. The company had argued that its cement kilns and related equipment had dropped in value by 50 percent due to the poor construction market.

The successful challenge by Cemex and other property owners knocked about $200 million in taxable value from the rolls. If the previously approved rollback rate is applied to the smaller property value figure, it would bring in about $1.2 million less for the general fund, county budget manager George Zoettlein told the board Tuesday.

The commission at its July 10 meeting had approved a tentative balanced budget for 2012-13 based on the original rollback rate. The budget also factored in about $1.1 million in revenue from a utilities surcharge tacked on to customers' bills.

Commissioners never warmed to the surcharge, though, and on Tuesday they tabled it, leaving a hole in the budget. Add to that the dollars shorted by the Department of Revenue decree, and the budget faces a shortfall of as much as $2.3 million.

On Tuesday, Zoettlein gave the board a little good news: The gap is a little less than that, about $1.9 million. Still, he recommended the board increase its tentative tax rate to 6.2557 mills to balance the budget, with hopes of later setting a lower final rate based on further cuts or additional revenue sources.

The tentative rates will be advertised on the preliminary notices property owners receive in August before government budgets and the final rates are set in September. Once a tentative rate is set, the commission can decide to approve a lower rate, but not a higher one unless another notice is sent out, which is costly.

Board members refused to consider a higher rate, looking instead to the sheriff and the departments under the board's control for spending reductions.

Dukes said he still wants a breakdown of full-time positions in each department to consider how the board can make its share of cuts, too.

"We're all feeling the cuts," Commissioner Dave Russell said. "There's just going to have to be more."

Nienhuis said he had serious concerns about how any cuts would affect his ability to run the county jail.

"I can't in good conscience cut my detention budget any further," he said.

Dukes and Commissioner James Adkins, the two commissioners who dissented last month because they didn't support going to the rollback rate, did so again Tuesday.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said before the vote that he supported the higher tentative rate, but voted in the majority with Russell and Commissioner John Druzbick. Stabins said afterward that he did so because he didn't want to risk a vote that might result in the even lower rate that Adkins and Dukes supported.

In other action, the board voted unanimously to allow the Florida Governmental Utility Authority to review the county's utilities operation and submit a report summarizing the findings. The report, supplied free of charge, could be a precursor to selling the utilities operation to the authority, a coalition of several local governments that retain some level of control over their utility operations through a representative on the authority's board of directors.

The county is facing annual rate increases after 2014 to keep the utilities fund solvent. The authority would identify deficiencies and efficiencies in the county's utilities operation, estimate its value and what the county would be paid up front, and show how rates would be affected, FGUA chief executive officer Robert Sheets told commissioners.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Hernando commission opts for more cuts rather than higher tax rate 07/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 8:25pm]
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