BROOKSVILLE — When county budget manager George Zoettlein brings commissioners a 2011-12 budget for tentative approval Tuesday evening, the spending plan, as required, will be balanced.
But the plan includes some assumptions that may be too much for individual commissioners to accept, and that means the final outcome remains uncertain.
What is sure is that most of the choices made by county leaders this summer have been tough.
The budget tug-of-war has included layoffs and cuts to employee benefits and pay through furloughs. The operation of some parks and other facilities, such as the cannery, has been handed over to private entities.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the commission will conduct the first public hearing on the spending plan and tax rate, which increased by 31/2 percent. The board will consider approving the tentative budget and funding mechanism. The final public hearing and approval is slated for Sept. 27.
Chief among the unresolved issues is whether to borrow $1,584,500 in budget stabilization reserves to offset property value adjustments the county reluctantly had to make for numerous property owners — primarily Cemex — and for revenue decreases and new expenses assumed by the tax collector.
Commissioners have argued that they have spent enough of their reserves over the past two years and thus need to make spending cuts to match lower revenue that has resulted from falling property values.
The other drawback to borrowing is that the budget stabilization reserve must be paid back within the next two years. Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek has said that property values next year will likely decline another 5 percent.
That puts the county millions in the hole before even beginning to plan for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Using the fund also requires a supermajority vote of the commission, and more than one commissioner has voiced concern about tapping the reserve. At a recent meeting, Commissioner Dave Russell pointed out that the commission set the supermajority policy and could allow state law to take over, meaning that only a simple majority of three votes would be needed.
The money from the fund would be used only as a last resort. Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he would support that. "It's the administrator's recommendation'' to balance the budget, he said.
Still, Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he isn't happy with the idea, even if it's used only as a last resort at the end of the fiscal year.
"I have a real problem writing checks you can't cash to try to bail yourself out,'' Dukes said. "Still, I'm trying to keep an open mind.''
With planned spending and anticipated revenue millions of dollars apart throughout the budget season, commissioners agreed to propose a small increase in the tax rate to bridge the gap, but they set it at the same level as the decrease in taxes to be charged by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in an effort to make it a break-even proposition for taxpayers.
That increase amounts to .1885 mills, with a mill equaling $1 in tax for every $1,000 of appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a home valued at $150,000 with the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax increase would be $18.85 annually.
At the same time, the county staff removed the county's mosquito control budget out of the cash-strapped general fund and suggested that it be funded through a separate tax. To keep the overall county tax rate from rising, the commission proposed setting the rate for the sensitive lands fund at zero.
To create the tax for mosquito control, the commission will have to be unanimous in its vote.
The rate for mosquito control is .0844 mills, or $8.44 per year, for a $150,000 home.
Commissioners had been awaiting word on whether Sheriff Al Nienhuis and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams would come in with cuts equaling requests by the county's leadership team. On Friday, Nienhuis announced that he had been able to find the $2 million in cuts that the county needed and return $500,000 from jail operations.
Williams had not submitted any information to the county by Friday on whether she would trim the remaining $200,000 she was asked to cut, but she has said she is working to consolidate some precincts for next year's elections.
"The constitutional officers, they gave us a bit of a concern,'' said Commission Chairman Jim Adkins. "Now it seems like they're coming in with what we asked.''
Overall, Adkins said he was glad to see that some difficult aspects of the budget were coming together. With private groups stepping up, parks such as Ernie Wever Youth Park, which had been slated for closure, will instead survive.
Other passive parks, such as Lake Townsen Regional Park, will likely get some help from sensitive lands money, allowing a new hard road to be built to the boat ramp and fishing area, Adkins said.
The designation of Lake Townsen and Linda Pedersen parks for sensitive lands monies is up for discussion Tuesday. Both of those parks had also been set for full or partial closure.
In addition, commissioners on Tuesday will discuss what savings they might realize from the furloughs, pay cuts and benefits reductions proposed for union and nonunion employees.
Among other concessions, the Teamsters Union has given preliminary approval to reductions in the amount the county contributes to employee health insurance and several unpaid days off.
The savings in the general fund for the health care reductions add up to $75,477 — a total of $213,088 from all funds.
The days off without pay will save another $112,337 in the general fund and $351,848 overall.
For nonunion employees, the commission will consider a pay decrease of 1.15 percent for employees making more than $60,000 a year, a move that could save $11,696 in the general fund and a total of $31,728 for all funds.
The commission could also consider furlough days for nonunion workers that would save the general fund $77,712 and $169,640 in all funds.
Any savings realized from the cuts to benefits and the furloughs have not yet been figured into the budget and could offset the tax rate increase or the amount used from the stabilization fund or any other unexpected change in the spending plan, Zoettlein said.
Stabins said he would not be in favor of seeing any additional savings applied to reducing the tax rate.
He noted that the taxes he will pay for supporting schools alone on his summer home in New York are seven times his total tax bill on his homesteaded house in Spring Hill.
Stabins said the current proposed tax rate was one that "any civilized government can afford.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.