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Hernando County attorney's job on the line despite study calling office understaffed

BROOKSVILLE — A study requested by the county has concluded that the county attorney's office operates efficiently, is run by loyal and skilled employees — and is understaffed.

The study by the Florida Bar's Law Office Management Assistance Service was delivered to the county Monday, just three days after Hernando County Commission Chairman Jim Adkins told County Attorney Garth Coller that his job would be on the line during upcoming budget discussions.

After reading the study's conclusions, Adkins said he hasn't changed his mind.

"It's nothing personal. It's all about money,'' he said. "It's something that I feel we have to look at.''

Coller earns $132,829 annually. His benefits cost the county another $50,477.

Cutting the county attorney's position would carry a price tag as well. Coller, who came to work for the county in 2000, would take with him unused paid time off worth $34,792, and terminating his contract would give him five months of pay, which would equal another $55,345.

With the county facing a projected 2011-12 budget shortfall of $6.7 million and another $1.3 million in current-year tax money that must be refunded, Adkins and the other commissioners face tough choices.

Already, during this week's commission meeting, commissioners faced a room full of residents who begged that the county not close their parks and the Little Rock Cannery and not cut programs and services, including the Master Gardener program and Hernando County Government Broadcasting.

Adkins said he figures that the two assistant county attorneys can handle the county's legal case load.

"I talked to Garth,'' Adkins said. "He didn't take it bad.''

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said looking at Coller's position is necessary as the commission moves forward with budget discussions.

"Quite truthfully, I support the chairman thinking outside the box,'' Dukes said.

Commissioner Dave Russell said, "We're pretty much in dire straits now'' with the budget situation. Looking at the county attorney's position is "something that warrants discussion,'' he said. "Every position should be considered at this point.''

He said the report from the Florida Bar wasn't surprising and also wasn't enough to take the discussion about the county attorney's office off the table.

"Obviously, everyone is stretched right now. That's not unusual for any government office,'' Russell said.

But Commissioner John Druzbick said the findings of the report should at least be considered.

"We've already gone down two positions,'' he noted.

There used to be four assistant county attorneys, but two quit.

The 16-page study was based on observations and interviews with the county attorney's staff by two members of the Bar's team.

They concluded that Coller's office did all of the duties that are considered "best practices,'' except for those not affordable in the current economic climate. They noted high morale among the staff and complete cooperation with the study.

They wrote that the "office is understaffed by one attorney and by one legal assistant. This is not a weakness in management. It is a reality of budgetary restrictions.''

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he would not favor any move that would put the attorneys under County Administrator David Hamilton, which had been explored previously. Currently, the county attorney is hired by and reports to the commission.

Stabins suggested that instead of taking away one of the attorneys from an office that some consider understaffed, he would rather see Coller — and Hamilton — offer to reduce their pay to about $100,000. Hamilton makes $135,000 annually.

"That would be wonderful and would help morale tremendously if it came from them,'' Stabins said.

Coller said Adkins' idea about axing the attorney's position should be discussed, along with all of the other budget-cutting ideas on the table.

"All ideas are a good thing. It's good to talk about even things outside the box,'' Coller said.

But he pointed out that the commissioners need a designated county attorney to represent them.

"While I see the need to save money, to save taxpayer dollars," he said, "this seems misguided.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County attorney's job on the line despite study calling office understaffed 05/27/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 27, 2011 7:34pm]
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