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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.