BROOKSVILLE — County commissioners got their first chance Wednesday to talk about how their staff plans to make up the nearly $16-million they believe revenue will lag behind costs in the coming year.
The focus was on what Commissioner Jeff Stabins termed "the elephant in the china shop,'' the costs of operating the privately run Hernando County jail.
Higher costs tied to a rising jail population have far outstripped the growth rate of other parts of the county budget in recent years. County officials have met with the sheriff and judges seeking ways to curb costs, including using incarceration alternatives such as electronic ankle bracelets, deputy county administrator Larry Jennings explained.
Jennings did not say how much those efforts may be bringing down costs but he did say prisoner numbers and costs are not rising as far as they had been. "We're not having the growth in population in 2008 that we had budgeted for,'' Jennings said.
Officials now project they can trim $3-million in spending from this year's jail budget and another $5.7-million next year. That would be half of the projected $16-million budget shortfall.
Stabins said that the jail population could rise again and the county should be conservative in its approach. Jennings said the county was being realistic about actual costs and he was confident that the efforts to cut the prisoner numbers will work. "As a community, we have some ability to control that number,'' he said.
The county contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America to run the jail, and Hernando pays a per-day cost for every county resident jailed. Empty jail beds, however, are available for out-of-county prisoners, such as those held on immigration charges around the state. The county and CCA make money off of those inmates.
County officials are also proposing lopping $2.67-million from various general fund expenditures. They also envision saving $554,000 because of job vacancies; cutting all general fund overtime, which would save $150,000; and several other transfers and trims.
The county is still $2.6-million away from balancing costs and expenditures but County Administrator David Hamilton said the work is ongoing. The spending plan so far assumes no increases in budgets for the county's constitutional officers including the sheriff, the clerk of the circuit court, the property appraiser, the tax collector and the supervisor of elections. Their proposed budgets are due to the county June 1.
"From here on in, the decisions and the recommendations are going to be tougher and tougher,'' Hamilton said.
Commissioner Dave Russell praised the work as an "outstanding approach'' to help see the whole picture as the budget process continues.
"There is still a lot of misinformation out in the public,'' said Stabins, who suggested that Hamilton get the staff to prepare charts that would simplify the incoming revenue and costs.
"In some cases, people are choosing not to pay attention even when the charts are there,'' said County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley. He praised Hamilton for working on a way to make the whole process more transparent.
Hamilton praised the staff for their work noting, "I think the creative horsepower in our organization is going to help us all.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.