BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis is worried about his workforce.
For the last four years, Sheriff's Office employees have endured a pay freeze. Going that long without a reward for hard work and experience damages morale and makes it more likely that good people will leave for higher-paying agencies, the sheriff contends. As the economy shows signs of improving, it's time to thaw the freeze.
"There is light on the horizon,'' he said.
But Nienhuis will have to convince county commissioners, who view his timing as problematic.
The $41.07 million budget that Nienhuis submitted Friday for 2013-14 includes $700,000 for pay raises for the agency's roughly 511 employees.
"It is no secret that retaining good, trained, experienced employees is much more cost effective and better for our community as it relates to the difficult and dangerous job of protecting our citizens," Nienhuis wrote to commissioners. "Maintaining competitive salaries is one of the factors to success in this endeavor."
On the same day Nienhuis submitted his budget, Property Appraiser John Emerson released his preliminary estimate of property values. While the news wasn't as grim as the last few years, when values declined significantly, there was enough of a dip that it will cost the county another $1.7 million in tax revenue for the general fund.
Added to the drying up of grant money for such things as library services, budgets built on nonrecurring funding sources and the depletion of excess reserves, the county is facing at least a $7.1 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
That doesn't count increases requested by the constitutional officers, including the sheriff's $1.2 million increase.
County commissioners say they aren't sure they want to foot the bill for pay raises for Sheriff's Office employees, even though the employees haven't seen increases in several years.
"That goes for county employees as well,'' said commission Chairman Dave Russell. "It's going to be difficult for us to accommodate the sheriff with his request for raises.''
Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he was looking at the sheriff's budget with a critical eye.
"He's been asking for raises,'' Nicholson said. "I told him that, as far as I'm concerned, that's not going to happen.''
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he wasn't sure where the next cuts in the county's budget could be made and is not happy that the Legislature and governor passed on to the county more of the costs for employee benefits.
The sheriff needs $760,000 more just to pay for those benefits.
"It's going to be interesting to see what takes place,'' Adkins said.
Nicholson didn't have an answer either, but said he wasn't interested in talking about a tax increase. Still, he called the county's current staffing level threadbare and wasn't sure where else the county could cut.
"I don't want to raise taxes. I don't want to do that,'' Nicholson said. "How do we get the sheriff to cut his budget? I don't know, but something has got to give.''
As a businessman, Russell has been reluctant to raise the property tax rate. This year, however, he said he believes the commission may have to consider raising the rate while continuing to seek cost savings and efficiencies.
Since the commission cut the tax rate in 2007, Hernando taxpayers have received $108 million in tax relief, not even considering the effect of lower property values to which tax rates are applied, Russell said.
"This commission has done everything it can to keep millage rates as low as possible,'' he said. "There's no more cushion, no more reserve. . . . We're at the point where the rubber meets the road.''
In his letter, Nienhuis said he plans to return enough money from his current budget to cover the cost of the raises while still giving back to the county $477,000 in civil fees.
Instead of an across-the-board raise, Nienhuis plans a tiered approach to reward employees based on their experience and time on the job.
In an interview with the Times, Nienhuis said the increases would range from 2 percent to 6 percent. Employees who have been with the agency through the duration of the pay freeze would receive the biggest bump. The increases would take effect on the employee's anniversary date.
"All I'm trying to do is move them up in their pay grade a little bit and give credit for their seniority," he said.
In his letter, Nienhuis touts his efforts to save money: His fuel budget will remain static. Organizational changes have saved about $100,000. Using inmates to clean roadways and for other tasks saved about $1.2 million this fiscal year.
Nienhuis said it's too early to let a projected shortfall of revenue for the county kill his proposal for raises.
"I think talking about a deficit is way premature and maybe unnecessarily controversial," he said. "There's not a deficit until your revenues are less than your expenditures."