BROOKSVILLE — When the call went out two years ago that the budget was going to be tight throughout Hernando County government, utilities director Joe Stapf took it to heart. He cut costs, explored privatization and trimmed positions.
Last year, when the call to cut came out again and county commissioners decided they could save about $500,000 by giving all county employees two weeks off without pay, Stapf was in a bind.
In his cut-to-the-bone solid waste operation, giving a furlough week to an employee has meant bringing in another employee — on time-and-a-half pay — to get the work done.
Stapf told the board it was going to cost money to do furloughs in his department. This week, he told them again that furloughs have not worked in his world.
That example and plenty of others helped persuade the County Commission this week to abandon furloughs in the coming fiscal year.
Furloughs were controversial from the start, serving as a bargaining chip when the county negotiated its first contract with the Teamsters Union last year.
Eventually the Teamsters agreed to the furloughs to save some positions and secure contract language that formalized a 40-hour workweek.
The furloughs have also drawn complaints from staffers and citizens. With county offices generally working with fewer staffers because of other cuts, some tasks weren't getting done some weeks.
Two of Health and Human Services director Jean Rags' employees were on furlough this week and she saw the effect on her office. Some visitors didn't get served. Some phone calls didn't get returned.
"When we have furloughs, we can't be as responsive to the people and that is frustrating to the person who needs information,'' Rags said. "It's frustrating for us, too.''
The rules for the furloughs say that a worker has to be gone for a week and cannot do any county-related work, including answering calls about work or even checking e-mail or voice mail. This has led to frustration, especially when top staffers were out of the office.
Commissioners faced the effect of furloughs firsthand Tuesday. As they discussed this topic as well as many other key issues, two important players were absent: County Administrator David Hamilton and County Attorney Garth Coller both were on furloughs.
Rags was acting administrator in Hamilton's place. Along with her regular job of overseeing six departments, she spent the week wrestling with issues such as the county budget and a crisis over the inventory of equipment at the jail.
On Tuesday, commissioners voted 4-1 to take furloughs off the table for the new budget year, which begins Oct. 1. Instead, they chose to not spend any more money this year to offset the cost of employees' health insurance, which was rising by 9 percent.
That means current county contributions toward health insurance remain the same. They are $335 for a single employee, $380 for an employee and spouse or employee and children and $415 per family for 24 of the 26 annual pay periods.
For a single employee who participates in the most expensive insurance offered, the county's contribution will still cover the whole cost even with the increase but dollars left over to help pay for other mandatory and optional insurance plans will be reduced.
By not taking a financial hit from furloughs, employees would realize an increase in their pay of about 4.5 percent, money that they could use to pay for higher insurance costs, said Cheryl Marsden, human resources director.
For the county, the overall savings of not increasing the county contribution amounts to $642,000, and $164,000 of that is in the general fund. Those funds, Marsden noted, might be used to keep a few other positions safe for the new budget year.
Only commission Chairman John Druzbick voted against the move.
With the county still facing more than $1 million in shortfall, Druzbick said he wasn't ready to take anything off the table for consideration and that included furloughs and all their complications.
"If we don't make the reductions,'' he said, "then we're looking at layoffs.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.