BROOKSVILLE — The agenda for 2008 was set for Hernando County's leaders in January when voters overwhelmingly chose to slash property tax revenues.
The passage of Amendment 1, coupled with tax-cutting measures implemented in 2007, kept Hernando officials scrambling to cut spending while at the same time adjusting to a new county administrator and navigating a tumultuous election season that saw two of three incumbent county commissioners lose their jobs.
The hiring of David Hamilton as county administrator provided the blueprint on how to build the new, smaller government. Hamilton arrived with a goal to work for Hernando County for five years, commissioners willing, to provide a continuity that the county had not seen in its top appointed position for more than a decade.
Hamilton, who arrived in March amid numerous scandals involving county employees, set a quick priority list for his tasks.
"There were a number of issues that had simply evolved over time because of the cavalcade of administrators,'' Hamilton said. "You can't have an organization that is built to have an administrator without having someone there over a long period of time for consistency.
"It was very clear from day one that we had to get the fires out,'' he said.
First, he handled those immediate personnel controversies. Then, he worked to get the county's financial plan in order, knowing revenue would continue to shrink.
The mantra to reduce county spending that inflamed residents through the 2007 Government Gone Wild seminars continued into 2008 with Hamilton taking his plans for the new budget year out into the community in a series of meetings.
He asked people about their priority services and used what he learned in the community centers and public halls to help craft the county's 2009 budget. The county looked at reduced services such as shorter hours at libraries and animal services, user fees such as for youth and adult sports leagues and reductions in allocations to THE Bus.
Ultimately public transportation was unaffected by a few reallocations of dollars, and the league user fees were turned down. Balancing the budget was largely done through a reduction in the jail budget, use of some reserves and reductions in the number of county workers.
As a key part of preparing further downsizing, Hamilton also proposed a pared-down organizational structure, one that included more involvement by key constitutional officers such as the sheriff and the clerk of the circuit court.
The plan has already generated some controversy from the clerk's office as well as the county attorney. More details are expected to come to the County Commission in late January.
Political challengers argued that incumbents Jeff Stabins, Chris Kingsley and Diane Rowden allowed the county budget to swell to an unreasonable level during the boom of rising property values and didn't act quickly enough to reduce tax rates.
At the beginning of the season, a dozen candidates were on the stump for the three available seats. Stabins, a Republican, survived the onslaught but Democrats Kingsley and Rowden were defeated by Jim Adkins and John Druzbick, respectively, in the Nov. 4 election.
The commissioners weren't the only departures in 2008. Two longtime department heads also chose to retire: Frank McDowell, head of code enforcement, and Grant Tolbert, development services director.
Another big change comes as this year ends. As of Jan. 1, the county's emergency management function will shift to Sheriff Richard Nugent, a deal negotiated over a period of months after the firing of the former emergency management director Tom Leto.
The county employees composing the department will become Nugent's employees except in the case of a declared emergency, when newly approved Emergency Management Director Cecilia Patella will report directly to the County Commission, as required by law.
In other county activity in 2008, the County Commission decided to settle a series of legal hassles involving ownership of the fairground property by transferring ownership to the longtime tenants, the Hernando County Fair Association.
Worried about losing $6-million in state funding and the badly needed dredging of the Hernando Beach Channel, commissioners also decided to explore an alternative site to dump the spoils of the dredging. The first-choice dumping spot has landed the county in a legal battle with nearby neighbors.
Hearings on those concerns are set for late January.
The county also continued to move ahead on plans for the long-discussed major capital project, construction of a judicial center for downtown Brooksville. Preliminary proposals have been delivered to the county and a pared-down list of who might get a shot at a public/private partnership is expected in the early part of 2009.
While Hamilton said he is pleased with the progress that has been made in 2008, he sees much work ahead to continue to move the county forward to provide the services residents want and do it in the most economical way possible.
"We're near but we're not where we need to be yet,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.