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Hernando commissioners order staff to look for more budget cuts

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission sent its staff back to the drawing board Tuesday to trim more expenses in the proposed 2013-14 budget and asked the county's constitutional officers to do the same.

The goal: shrink the size of a proposed increase in the property tax rate.

Currently, the county's spending plan for the year beginning Oct. 1 totals $322.8 million, including a $92.2 million general fund.

The proposed tax rate to support the general fund is 7.3691 mills, a 24.5 percent increase over this year's rate. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For a home with a taxable value of $55,461, the county's average, the tax going to the general fund would be $408.70.

Officials calculated that the actual increase for an average taxpayer, when all of the other factors of the tax bill are considered, would be about 8 percent.

By the end of Tuesday's first workshop on the budget, after hearing from about a half dozen residents unhappy with the county's spending practices, the board had asked the staff to bring back a plan that would require a general fund tax rate of 7 mills, instead of 7.3691.

Commissioners also asked County Administrator Len Sossamon and George Zoettlein, assistant county administrator for budget and community services, to bring back a budget that requires cuts from the three constitutional officers the commission can still tap for reductions.

That would be the supervisor of elections, the clerk of the Circuit Court and, especially in the mind of Commissioner Nick Nicholson, the sheriff, who accounts for the largest chunk of the general fund budget.

For the past few years, the county has struggled with revenue shortfalls due to falling property values. While, up until now, the county has been able to balance the budget using reserves, this year there are no available reserves, and the county is looking at a $9.7 million revenue shortfall.

Zoettlein gave a detailed presentation, talking about how the county's budget, tax rate and staffing have changed since the housing bubble burst around 2006.

In 2008, he explained, the county spent $16 million on board-controlled personnel expenses. In 2013, that was down to $8.6 million. While the ratio of county employees to residents was 1 to 456 in 2006, now it is 1 to 973.

But county resident Mike Barsanti said the county needs to tap into tens of thousands of dollars of reserves in all funds, rather than raising the tax rate.

"You're not doing your jobs,'' Barsanti said. "I'm not saying I'm overtaxed. … I'm saying you're mismanaging your money.''

Shirley Miketinac said she thought that employees seeking raises were being unrealistic in the current economic conditions.

"The bottom has dropped out for all of us,'' Miketinac said. "Maybe we have to cut services.''

Local businesswoman Anna Liisa Covell also took issue with the idea of employee raises.

"Wanting and being able to afford are two different things,'' Covell said. "You need to listen to the people.''

Commission Chairman Dave Russell suggested the smaller tax-rate increase. He said that amount would take into account a $2.7 million one-time payment to the county from the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, a settlement in a tax dispute. Trimming back the tax rate would position the county to bring in revenue matching what the county plans to spend rather than spending one-time funding sources.

Nicholson said that commissioners had been warned not to talk about some specific areas for cuts, so he directed Sossamon to look for ways to trim increases in recurring expenses. That could include salaries.

Sossamon said he would bring a scaled-back budget to the commission on Sept. 10. That's also the day of the first public hearing on the budget. The second and final hearing is slated for Sept. 24.

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

>>In other business

The Hernando County Commission on Tuesday:

• Unanimously agreed to sponsor the annual Veterans Appreciation Parade at the request of Anna Liisa Covell, who has organized the event for the past dozen years. Covell, who said the cost runs about $1,500 for permits and police, had been denied support by the city of Brooksville. Commission Chairman Dave Russell asked County Administrator Len Sossamon to work with the city on the parade details and costs.

• Without discussion, agreed to adjust some of the user fees paid for parking and use of county parks. They include creating an all-park annual pass for $230 and creating annual passes for Bark Island for $70 for a year, plus $30 for up to two additional dogs. Other park fees that will be increased: annual bicycle trail fees up $5 to $40, boat ramp fees up $25 to $75, dog park fees up $5 to $40 and horse trail fees up $5 to $40. The changes will increase revenue by $22,300.

• Agreed in concept to continue to help fund the Small Business Development Center that operates out of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce office. The center provides training and counseling for small businesses and hopes to expand from two to three days of operation a week during the coming year. The county's share of the cost is $21,000. Commissioners will take a formal vote on the funding at their next meeting.

• At the request of Commissioner Jim Adkins, asked the county staff to draw up a proposal for commission consideration whereby the county would provide legal representation for members of the county's volunteer boards. Adkins said that some people might be reluctant to serve if the county will not provide legal representation. The move comes after a tenant at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport filed a defamation suit against Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority.

• Agreed to schedule time at the next commission meeting to discuss how to go about replacing departing business development manager Michael McHugh, who announced his resignation last week. Commissioner Wayne Dukes suggested that, since the job is such a specialized position, the commission might consider hiring a search firm. Russell said he agreed that the commission should have that discussion, and he noted that the local business community also is interested in having input.

Hernando commissioners order staff to look for more budget cuts 08/27/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 7:10pm]
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