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Hernando County braces for more painful budget cuts

BROOKSVILLE — From cuts to popular programs like Meals on Wheels, furloughed workers and a possible 3-cent-a-gallon bump in the gas tax, the realities of a $10.5 million budget shortfall are about to hit home for Hernando County residents.

Last week, the county's department heads and constitutional officers received the amounts that the county administration and staff have proposed they cut from their budgets.

On Tuesday, the County Commission will weigh in on the list of options. Everything is on the table.

Elderly customers could see the county's Meals on Wheels program reduced, Jean Rags, who heads up the community services division, said this week.

For Sheriff Richard Nugent, it could mean hiring a private company to provide security at the Government Center instead of using his deputies. Nugent said he has made the decision to do just that.

Are people going to be unhappy? Sure, he said, but he has to find somewhere to make cuts.

Jim Gantt, the county's purchasing director, said Hernando would have to divert more offenders from jail to make up for the $500,000 set to be cut from the jail budget.

For many county department and division officials, their spending cut targets were more than 10 percent of their existing, already-pared-down budget proposals.

Nugent, for instance, is looking at a $4.2 million reduction, or 13 percent of his requested budget, an amount he calls "obscene."

The county portion of cuts proposed by county administration were based generally on the spending patterns in the 2006 budget year, according to Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings.

Revenues from that year are about what the county expects to collect in 2010.

Charles Mixson, public works director, said service cuts will be considered if he has to trim more than $500,000 from Mosquito Control and county facilities services. "It's a pretty big hit,'' he said.

On Tuesday, the County Commission will consider a new policy that would set a minimum amount in reserve funds. It would allow Hernando to cover expenses and emergencies while still being able to turn over some money to help make up the deficit.

Jennings said the plan would be to use some of those dollars over the next three years, such as $3 million expected to be carried forward from the 2009 budget, to offset the revenue shortfall.

The county's budget committee and staff are also recommending that the county freeze wages. The budget proposal envisions no raises, and furloughs and reduced work hours are being considered.

Also on the table is expanding the county's early leave option to all employees. The option was offered to those earning the top salaries but only a handful of workers took the early leave. That issue is expected to come back to another commission meeting later this summer.

County staff will also ask whether the commission is interested in pursuing two other ideas which must be acted on soon for them to make the deadline for implementation.

One is a possible 3-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax. The budget committee would support this only if it were offset by a cut to the property tax equal to the amount of money expected to be raised by such a boost.

The idea is that the money in the county budget for road improvements could be replaced by gas tax revenues, which must be used for road repairs.

Another recommendation is to separate out the sheriff's spending from general county spending as a separate taxing unit. While Nugent has not supported the idea before, facing such a huge hit on his budget this year, he has said he would be in favor of moving forward with the idea.

"Eighty-nine to 90 percent of our budget is people," Nugent said. Start cutting people and public safety is impacted.

"This is going to be obscene here," he said, noting that everyone is in the same position: his office, the county, other governments. "It forces everyone to look to what are your core missions."

Those, he said, must be covered.

Everything else is at risk.

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

Hernando County braces for more painful budget cuts 05/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 10:28am]
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