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Hernando County budget ax looms again

BROOKSVILLE — The Little Rock Cannery and the guardian ad litem program, both of which avoided the budget ax last year, are in jeopardy again. And so are several other county services, according to initial 2010-11 budget documents released Friday.

The general fund budget shortfall for the coming year has grown by about $3 million from the last projection, putting the distance between anticipated revenue and expenses at $8.3 million, according to George Zoettlein, director of the county's office of budget and management.

At the rate the county is burning through reserve funds to soften the blow of the cuts, Zoettlein predicts, "If we do nothing to adjust our budget, by 2012, we won't have any money left at all.''

Zoettlein will present a budget update to the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday, and his backup material makes it clear that the county started spending more money than it received during the 2008 fiscal year. Reserves have provided a cushion thus far, but that resource will be gone if spending isn't seriously curtailed, the budget director says.

"We don't want to send doom and gloom, but there has to be an awakening,'' he said in an interview Friday.

The point is brought home clearer than ever in the budget priority charts that have been prepared for the board. Departments this year for the first time were asked to list their expenses based on the priority level.

First priority was given to programs and services mandated by the state, and second priority to programs and services required under locally approved rules and ordinances.

The third priority includes quality-of-life services such as community relations functions, some training, nuisance abatement, various programs through Animal Services, special recreational events, youth and adult sports leagues and library services.

On the fourth level are add-on services such as product sales at Animal Services, one full-time employee for the guardian ad litem program, which provides legal advocacy for abused and neglected children, and the operation of the Little Rock Cannery.

"These are add-ons, above the quality of life,'' Zoettlein said. "They're nice to have, but sorry.''

As Zoettlein pointed out, even if the commission eliminates all general fund spending at priority levels three and above, "we're nowhere near'' making up the $8.3 million deficit.

As Zoettlein meets with department heads next month to scour over spending plans line by line, he will be asking, even of the first and second priority expenses, can the county get by with less.

For example, the county's comprehensive plan for growth requires the county to provide parks. But does it need all of the parks it has to meet that requirement? Zoettlein said he is going to ask those questions.

"When the (priority) pyramids come to the board in June, (commissioners) are going to have to make some tough decisions,'' he said.

County revenue has declined for several years because of declining property values brought on by the recession and tax reform.

To offset the difference between revenue and expenses, the county has already agreed to spend $3 million in reserves in the 2010-11 budget, use impact fee dollars to offset general fund dollars spent several years ago on park improvements and use grant dollars to offset library operation costs.

Zoettlein said the growth in the deficit is partially because revenues have been below what was projected. Also, another $400,000 was needed for payments to Medicaid, and the water management district is no longer going to pay the county $115,000 in lieu of taxes on district-owned lands.

In addition, the county is budgeting nearly $450,000 for jail repairs needed immediately in the current budget year and has projected another $1 million for 2010-11.

A more precise view of the budget will develop over the next couple of months, Zoettlein said, as the county learns what state and local tax revenues it can expect. The 2010-11 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

On the local level, Zoettlein said, he figured the revenue estimate based on a 10 percent decline in property values over last year. But in a recent conversation with Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek, Zoettlein learned that the value decline might be higher than that.

"I'm not getting very good news any place right now,'' he said.

But he said he plans to provide commissioners with as much information and as many ideas as he can to make 2010-11 spending fit within the fiscal constraints.

"I'm not going to let the county go under on my watch,'' he said.

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

Hernando County budget ax looms again 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 10:29pm]

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