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Hernando County Commissioner Rose Rocco eyes judicial center reserve fund

BROOKSVILLE — Facing possible employee furloughs and layoffs, cuts in services and shortened business hours, county commissioners and staffers are scouring spending plans to find ways to make ends meet.

Recently, Commissioner Rose Rocco asked the County Attorney's Office for an accounting of reserve funds that could be tapped to lessen the impact on a spending plan that faces a $10 million shortfall.

Two funds that turned up in the review by Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben, county officials have already targeted. But a third pool of reserve dollars that has not been discussed publicly also surfaced in the review.

As of last week, the county had accrued $18.8 million in a fund it has set aside for the construction of a judicial center, a project that the county has put on hold for now because finding the additional dollars to build the center is not feasible during tough economic times, officials have said.

Although a portion of that money is specifically required to be used for judicial and technology purposes, $12.5 million can be used for whatever the county deems necessary, according to Jouben's memo.

While other commissioners contacted late last week were reluctant to consider touching the judicial center money except in the most extreme circumstance, Rocco said the county faces some difficult decisions and needs to have all of its cards on the table as decisions are made.

"I think we need to look at everything,'' she said.

And she added, "I don't think we can afford to go into building a judicial center at this particular time.''

She said she knows that new judicial space might be needed in the future and that the county should keep some funding available for that. In fact, at some point, the judges could force the county's hand and require it to provide more facilities.

In the short term, the county has agreed to build one new courtroom in the existing government center in downtown Brooksville.

Several key elements of the budget discussion remain unresolved, as commissioners learned during discussions at their meeting last week.

They still don't know how much of the $2 million in spending cuts they've requested from Sheriff Richard Nugent will actually be made. There are other cuts requested from Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams and discussions of other cuts planned with agencies such as the Medical Examiner's Office and the regional water authority.

Another $700,000 must also be found because the county doesn't want to use more than $3 million in excess reserve funds to fill the budget gap this year.

In addition, the county is in the middle of negotiating the first contract for its employees with the Teamsters union. Many of the important choices that affect workers will have to be decided at the bargaining table, and that means time is of the essence.

Another session between the Teamsters and the administration is planned for Thursday.

Rocco worries that some of the major decisions will be pushed up against the commission's deadline for action, which is the end of September. The 2009-10 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

If the time runs short and the county's budget needs haven't been met, she said, the judicial money might be needed.

"If we need to provide essential core services, we may have to'' use those funds, Rocco said.

Commission Chairman David Russell said he is reluctant to use the judicial center reserve unless there is no other choice. Already, the county has agreed to spend down its general reserves by $9 million over the next three years.

"I believe we need to be budgeting on our revenues and not on our surpluses,'' he said, noting that he believes there is still a need to downsize government to match county revenue.

Eventually, the county will have to build the judicial center, and so funds need to be available for that, he said.

The two other reserves mentioned in Jouben's memo are reserves Russell has himself pushed to spend down. One is the deposit money collected from Spring Hill utility customers years ago before the county acquired the utility.

Held up in litigation for years, the fund case is now in federal court. Despite that, the county, at Russell's urging, agreed to use the nearly $4 million to help offset costs of $150 million in upcoming utility projects. For county rate payers, it means water and sewer rate increases have been delayed.

Russell has also been an advocate of using some of the $3.45 million in library grant funds available to help pay for some library operations, possibly allowing libraries to cancel previous cost-cutting decisions that have shortened hours of operation.

Jouben's memo points out that the county could eliminate the need for any general fund help to run the library system in the new year by spending down the grant fund. But Russell said using up all of the money "wouldn't be prudent'' and there was no guarantee additional grants through the state would be available in the future.

Commissioner John Druzbick said that while the money for the judicial center has always been available, he didn't want to see it used to offset the revenue shortfall. The county should use its other resources first, he said, especially since the judges could push the need for more space at any time.

Many of the tougher budget decisions will come before commissioners at their meeting July 28.

Rocco said pulling from any of the reserve funds to make the budget work should be done cautiously, especially since next year's budget picture is predicted to be even worse.

"You don't want to drain what you have,'' she said. "It's just like a family. You don't want to take out all of your savings to get by.''

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

Hernando County Commissioner Rose Rocco eyes judicial center reserve fund 07/19/09 [Last modified: Sunday, July 19, 2009 7:54pm]
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