Hernando County Commission might use judicial center fund to ease new budget woes

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's 2012-13 budget picture continues to become more bleak, and on Tuesday county commissioners said they would consider dipping into the county's judicial center fund to cover the latest hit.

County budget manager George Zoettlein told commissioners that, in crunching year-end revenue numbers, he discovered that the county is $2 million further in the hole than he believed during last week's budget discussion.

At that meeting, commissioners worked out a plan to divide the then-$2.3 million shortfall proportionately among commission-controlled departments, the sheriff, the supervisor of elections and the clerk of circuit court.

The latest shortfall is due to lower-than-normal property tax collections, Zoettlein said.

The commission has already set the county's property tax rate, so it would be difficult to adjust the rate for next year's budget, which must be approved in September.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes reminded commissioners that there is still $7 million in county coffers that was set aside for construction of a judicial center.

Dukes noted that he had met recently with Chief Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. and County Administrator Len Sossamon to discuss courtroom space needs. He said Merritt noted that there is $5 million of additional money available for any court expansion project, and Dukes said he wasn't sure all of the money in the county's fund was needed.

"I told the judge we were in a hard spot,'' Dukes said, "and he understood that."

Dukes asked that the issue be put on next week's County Commission agenda for further discussion.

"That sounds like a good topic for discussion. It's probably a tenable idea,'' said Commissioner Dave Russell.

But Commissioner John Druzbick voiced some concern about using the reserve. He questioned Zoettlein about other financial unknowns, such as whether the county will be on the hook for paying employee retirement money that is tied up in litigation before the state Supreme Court.

Commissioners had also talked about dipping into the judicial reserve to pay for disputed Medicaid payments to the state. The county recently got some good news on that front. While original estimates of what the county owed were $3 million or more, the most recent information puts the total at about $1.5 million.

One other question is what Sheriff Al Nienhuis plans to do to cut $1.3 million from his budget, as commissioners requested.

Bill Kicklighter, chief administrative officer at the Sheriff's Office, attended Tuesday's workshop, but did not ask to speak, and commissioners did not call him to the lectern.

In an interview with the Times on Friday, Nienhuis said it's still too early in the budget process to start specifying how he will accommodate the loss.

The sheriff is pinning at least some hope on the expectation that his agency will have some surplus funds to work with as the current budget year draws to a close.

"We just need to get a little closer to the end of the year before we have to definitively make tough decisions," Nienhuis said.

At last week's budget discussion, however, the sheriff warned that he would have to cut a couple dozen "front line" people, maybe more.

Nienhuis said Friday there has been no talk of pay cuts at the Sheriff's Office, and he called salary reductions a "highly unlikely" strategy.

Sheriff's Office employees haven't received a raise in four years and have had to begin contributing toward their pension funds, he noted. Cutting pay would likely result in deputies leaving for other agencies, he said, and replacing deputies is costly.

"Unless something drastically changes for the worse," Nienhuis said, "I wouldn't consider taking more away from them."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando County Commission might use judicial center fund to ease new budget woes 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 8:23pm]

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