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Hernando commissioners learn of growing deficit in 2012-13 budget

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's potential budget shortfall has nearly doubled since the last time county commissioners discussed the dismal financial picture for 2012-13.

Expenses could outstrip anticipated revenues by $9.5 million, commissioners learned Tuesday.

Immediately, Commissioner Dave Russell said he wanted to make it clear that the commission wasn't going to bear the full burden of any cuts that might be needed to close the gap.

Speaking to the county's constitutional officers via the live workshop broadcast, which Russell said he knew they were watching, he said, "We're in this together, and we will share the pain.''

In the last several years, the commission and the five constitutional officers have tussled over budget cuts, with the commission taking on a larger percentage of the hits.

Declining property tax collections due to falling property values continue to be a primary concern for the commission.

The latest budget projections also begin to factor in some of the changes in state funding requirements and other factors not previously figured into the mix, including an expectation that the county will not have as much cash on hand as in previous years to roll into next year's budget.

Personnel costs rose this year because planned furloughs and unpaid days off failed to gain the approval of the Teamsters union, and those dollars had to be added back to the budget. The county will pay more for its connection to Bright House Networks. The costs of housing juveniles at the detention center in Marion County and paying for out-of-jail medical expenses are also rising.

County budget manager George Zoettlein told commissioners during Tuesday's budget workshop that the numbers were still preliminary and that more would be known in the coming months. The new budget year begins Oct. 1.

He also explained that his projections were based on several assumptions, which could work in the county's favor or against it.

Zoettlein explained that he assumed that early estimates of property values falling by 5 percent were accurate. But he won't know for sure until tax rolls are certified by Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek on July 1.

He also assumed that county employees would continue to have to pay 3 percent of their salaries toward retirement, a cost borne by the county in the past. But that issue is tied up in the courts and could change.

No health care cost increases and unchanged budgets by the constitutional officers were also figured into Zoettlein's calculations.

Russell said he was unwilling to accept constitutional budgets that maintain spending at previous levels.

"We cannot see a budget even remotely resembling this year's budget,'' he said. "We simply don't have the money.''

Russell urged the constitutional officers — sheriff, clerk of court, property appraiser, tax collector and supervisor of elections — to "step up.''

Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested that Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai could immediately cut out the job of general counsel from her budget since the person in that job now, Don Barbee, is Nicolai's likely successor after she retires at the end of the year.

The total 2012-13 shortfall when subtracting projected revenues from requested expenses is $6,931,509. But Zoettlein didn't include the additional $2.6 million the county would have to pay for past Medicaid expenses under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott several days ago.

That brings the total gap to $9.5 million.

Zoettlein's figures showed that of the projected $92 million general fund budget for 2012-13, the costs of the constitutional officers total $46.7 million, while the departments controlled by the County Commission amount to $13.6 million.

"It's going to be another challenging budget year,'' said commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.

There are several cost-cutting initiatives in the works that Russell Wetherington, the county's chief procurement officer, updated for commissioners.

Wetherington noted that staff members are working on two options for energy management auditing, examining the county's bills for telecommunications, preparing to sell surplus county property and buildings, and working toward a wireless broadband system for the county.

He said there are also several outstanding issues that commissioners might want to schedule for future workshops that could affect the budget.

They include a discussion of how to fund libraries after most of the county's reserves are gone in 2014, a new communications system for the Sheriff's Office and making the ambulance billing system uniform as the Hernando County and Spring Hill fire rescue services are merged.

The commissioners also had a brief discussion about creating a local vendor preference for future county projects and the provision of supplies. County Attorney Garth Coller provided the commission with some legal concerns about adopting such a policy.

Dukes said he wanted to take the time to study the material and touch base again with another Florida county that has been using such a policy, which would allow commissioners to accept a slightly higher bid for future contracts because the bidder was from Hernando County and the low bidder was not.

Russell said the issue may be complex, but the concept isn't. Putting county money into the hands of companies based here improves Hernando's economy, he said.

"We're trying to accomplish a very simple concept here,'' he said.

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

Hernando commissioners learn of growing deficit in 2012-13 budget 04/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 3, 2012 7:22pm]
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