BROOKSVILLE — Faced with a looming deadline to implement a $1.3 million budget cut ordered by the County Commission, Sheriff Al Nienhuis met with several county commissioners Wednesday to discuss his options.
Nienhuis said he was still grappling with the budget figures provided by the county. Commissioners said he was asking them whether the total to cut was still solid and if they had any ideas how he should proceed.
In the end, the message from commissioners was clear: They do not intend to back away from their demand.
Among the topics of conversation were whether frontline sheriff's employees may be put at risk, whether the commission can cut deeper into reserves to help provide a cushion, and if there is another option to consider for the operation of the jail.
"My big thing was to see where (commissioners) stood and make sure they understand I want to work with them, but I have some serious challenges," Nienhuis said. "When somebody calls 911, they expect to see a deputy quickly, and I don't want to impact that if I don't have to."
The first of two public hearings on the county budget is slated for 5 p.m. Tuesday, so the time for sorting out spending plans is getting short. The final public hearing is Sept. 25, and the 2012-13 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
"He's still negotiating,'' commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said of his meeting Wednesday with Nienhuis. "He voiced his concerns about the ramifications'' of cutting his budget.
In June, Nienhuis submitted a 2012-13 budget of $38,277,524, the exact figure as last year. He also agreed take over the expense of putting four Animal Services officers on the street, a savings of $300,000 for the county's general fund.
Nienhuis has committed to giving back at least $300,000 to the general fund. He said Wednesday that he hopes that figure will be larger and that he will be able to give commissioners an estimate by the final budget hearing.
"We're trying to scrounge every penny we can," he said.
To date, Nienhuis said his agency has come up with about $900,000 to return to county's general fund. The sheriff said he and his staff are working with county budget director George Zoettlein to firm up how much more the agency has actually cut.
"We have a bead on it," Nienhuis said, "but it's still a moving target."
Zoettlein said, however, that the figure hasn't changed since July 15, when commissioners directed the sheriff to deal with an additional $1.9 million shortfall in the county budget by proportionately reducing the budgets of the county departments, the supervisor of elections and the clerk of court. The sheriff's share: a little more than $1.35 million, on top of the $900,000 he'd already come up with.
Nienhuis has publicly warned commissioners that such a cut would almost certainly force him to reduce the ranks of frontline employees, such as patrol deputies, by two dozen or more.
"I keep telling everybody that 80 percent of my budget is people," Nienhuis said, "and the vast majority of those are frontline people or people who support frontline people."
All county government departments have pared down, Dukes said.
"We're taking money from places we didn't want to,'' he said. "Either they pay what we told them to pay or we have to find it someplace else.''
Dukes said that Nienhuis told him he would work with the commissioners, but also said he could always give back the jail for the commission to operate.
"I just smiled,'' Dukes said.
"The only flexibility we have is using reserves, and that doesn't bode well for next year's budget,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said.
Russell noted that officials are already predicting another $5 million to $10 million shortfall in the 2013-14 budget because property values continue to fall. Also, amendments on the November ballot could cost the county millions if they are approved, and the county is looking at providing $2 million in funds for libraries next year.
"These things just keep adding up,'' Russell said. "And I'm not seeing a will to raise taxes'' in the next budget cycle.
Commissioner John Druzbick, who met with Nienhuis a week ago, was also not interesting in using reserves.
"He kept referencing the judicial reserve,'' Druzbick said, the fund that was set aside to construct a new judicial center, which officials now say is not needed.
Druzbick said he told the sheriff that those reserves have been tapped, but only for one-time expenses such as paying the state for previously challenged Medicaid bills.
"I made it clear to him that it's something I've been holding back on using for many reasons,'' he said.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said that the sheriff assured him that he is looking at several areas to cut and "he was positive. He felt he could do it.''
Adkins pointed out that the commission was able to make its share of additional cuts when officials learned last month that property tax collections are down from projections.
Dukes said he understood the sheriff's dilemma, but that the commission faces a challenge, too. There is not enough money to pay for all the things the county once provided.
"It's sad because he's got good justification,'' he said. "But how does that hold water when the company is bankrupt?''
Though previous commissions have sometimes relented to the persuasion of the county's top law enforcement officer, "I don't think we have that choice anymore,'' Dukes said.
"All those little nest eggs are gone now.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434. Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.