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Hernando County administrator hears ideas for covering $19.5 million shortfall

BROOKSVILLE — In the kind of soothing baritone voice that sends college students into slumber, County Administrator David Hamilton laid out what he called "the problem."

Hamilton tapped a key on a laptop computer, and a few rows of very large numbers appeared on the giant screen in the County Commission chambers of the government center in Brooksville.

The county's total requested budget for next year: $329,885,027.

The available revenue: $310,349,271.

The gap: $19,535,756.

"You're probably going to want to know what we're going to do to resolve that," Hamilton told the audience of 10 people Wednesday night at the last of seven budget road shows.

For the next 90 minutes or so, Hamilton went line by line through the budget — the departments, the divisions, the revenue sources and the deficits — to give residents a close look at the county's finances and to outline the strategies to make ends meet.

As a grim financial picture formed this year, Hamilton wanted to give taxpayers the chance to offer their own suggestions on how to tighten the purse strings. So he hit the road, just like last year, breaking down the budget in halls and community centers from Ridge Manor to Hernando Beach.

The folksy vibe of the meetings is a different context for Hamilton, who typically sits at the right hand of the commission chairman during regular meetings.

At these budget meetings, he had to act as teacher, mediator and diplomat, fielding questions from disgruntled taxpayers and lobbing some to department heads. In some cases, the answers required providing basic and not-so-basic rules of government operations.

A few minutes before the start of Wednesday's televised meeting, which was also streamed live on the county's Web site, Hamilton said he was pleased with the results of the series of forums.

"Even though it's very time-consuming, it's time very well spent," he said. "People appreciate being able to voice their opinions before we get to the final stages of the budgeting process. For me, it's also a learning opportunity."

Some of the meetings were sparsely attended, with county staffers nearly outnumbering residents. More than 40 people showed up at others. The attendance numbers were about the same as last year, Hamilton said.

"But what I've seen are different faces," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said there is a common theme: While residents feel there are places to trim, no one wants draconian cuts.

"Nobody that I'm aware of has called for the elimination of services," he said.

Before fielding suggestions at the meetings, though, Hamilton pointed out what has already been done.

He noted that budget levels in nearly all categories are comparable to those in 2006.

Of the $19.5 million shortfall, $9 million is in the general revenue fund, paid for with property tax dollars. The remainder is in the Utilities Department.

The county has tapped $3 million in reserves to help reduce the deficit. To use more when another bad year is predicted for 2010 would be unwise, Hamilton said.

County departments and constitutional officers — the clerk of court, property appraiser, and elections office among them — have made nearly $2 million in cuts.

Sheriff Richard Nugent balked at a requested $4.2 million reduction. So Hamilton went back with a lower figure — $2 million — and is awaiting a response.

"We're trying to be reasonable in tough times," Hamilton said.

The county employee count stands about 1,310, or 104 fewer than in 2006.

There were some favorite targets for residents.

The much-maligned public transit buses, though considered by some to be an essential service, was one of them. The county voted earlier last month to cut service hours in half.

Kathleen Reeves, 71, of Brooksville, noted at Wednesday's meeting that Hamilton did not break down employee salaries and benefits. Hamilton said he'd add a slide by the July 28 commission budget workshop.

"Cut back on some of them paid holidays," suggested 68-year-old Roxann Nix Brooksville.

Hamilton noted that county employees have not received a raise this year and won't get one next year. He said one furlough day per month is being considered, which would amount to a 5 percent pay cut, saving the general fund about $500,000 and the utilities division some $600,000.

At the various meetings, residents offered out-of-the-box ideas, such as an "adopt a park" program. Some supported user fees at parks, and at least one suggested enlisting prisoners and those sentenced to community service hours to save on maintenance costs.

"One brave soul said they would consider a tax increase," Hamilton said. "No one else responded that way."

On Thursday, Lisa Hammond, 52, of Hernando Beach, said it's time for the county and school board to work together to share parks and facilities.

"I'm not looking for my millage rate to be reduced, but I'm looking for everyone to work a little more intelligently with the limited resources that are available," Hammond said.

Hamilton agreed, saying the county staff would work on that.

He thanked everyone for coming.

"You made us do some thinking," he said, "and that's what this is all about."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County administrator hears ideas for covering $19.5 million shortfall 07/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 7:49pm]
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