Wednesday, November 22, 2017
News Roundup

Hernando County avoids judicial reserve to fill budget gap — for now

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BROOKSVILLE — Still at least $2 million shy of balancing the county budget for 2012-13, Hernando County commissioners stopped short Tuesday of dipping into the judicial fund reserve.

Commissioner Jim Adkins noted that, when there is a gap between revenue and spending, the only choices are to cut spending, increase the tax rate or borrow from reserves.

"You know, Mr. Chairman,'' said Commissioner Dave Russell. "We've done all three.''

The county abandoned plans for a stand-alone judicial center months ago, transferring the reserve back into general fund reserves, said Commissioner John Druzbick. But he expressed concern about using the reserve to balance the budget because that would just make it more difficult for the commission when it's time to plan for 2013-14.

Russell was poised to make a motion to use some of the $7 million the county has set aside for the judicial project when County Administrator Len Sossamon stopped him, noting that the vote might still be premature.

There are still some other things in play with county spending, Sossamon said.

Several of those were on Tuesday's agenda.

While just a few months ago the county was expecting to get hit with a bill of between $3.4 million and $4.2 million for disputed Medicaid claims, the state has dropped that down to $1.57 million, health and services manager Veda Ramirez told commissioners.

If the county agrees not to challenge the new total, it could pay a discounted amount — about $230,000 less. If the county does mount a challenge, the state could begin taking the full amount from revenue-sharing dollars the county receives.

Commissioners must decide what to do before Sept. 1; Ramirez said she would bring updated information to the board Aug. 28.

Chris Holley, executive director of Florida Association of Counties, told commissioners he anticipated that most counties would not challenge the totals in order to get the discount.

"Most everybody is going to take the bird in the hand rather than the two in the bush,'' Holley said.

In a related action, commissioners voted to rejoin the Florida Association of Counties. Hernando had dropped out several years ago to save the membership fee. But several commissioners said the organization's work on challenging the Medicaid funding and a variety of other issues made it wise to rejoin.

Hernando has been the only county in the state not to renew its membership. The dues run approximately $16,000 a year.

Another savings avenue the county is pursuing is the refinancing of $26 million in capital improvement bonds from 2002 and 2004. Commissioners had the choice of taking advantage of those savings in even increments in the coming years or taking more of the money in the early years.

They opted for the earlier savings at Sossamon's recommendation, in hopes that economic conditions will improve during the later years and the county's revenue picture will brighten.

Over the 16-year life of the bonds, the county will save $2.5 million.

One of the other ways the county is studying to save money is an assessment of its utility services. It has asked for an internal review, as well as one by the Florida Governmental Utilities Authority.

But concerns have been expressed about the amount of staff time the reviews could take. And on Tuesday, Commissioners Jeff Stabins and Adkins expressed concern that FGUA might not be the appropriate agency to conduct a review since it generally deals with much smaller, private utilities.

Ultimately, the commissioners agreed to seek a 60- to 90-day extension for completion of the study.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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