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Hernando County Commissioner Stabins forges budget plan he says will be less painful

BROOKSVILLE — County Administrator David Hamilton intends to spell out to the county commissioners on Tuesday the details of how he intends to balance next year's county budget.

But his won't be the only plan one on the table.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said Friday he's working up a plan that not only will save jobs and money but also show some compassion to long-time county employees, something he said that has been missing in Hamilton's efforts to streamline the workforce.

"I think that it's time that the Board of County Commissioners reassert itself as supreme authority over budget and policy making in Hernando County,'' Stabins told the St. Petersburg Times. "David works for us and I reject much of what he has proposed.''

Stabins met with Hamilton on Thursday to voice several concerns, including that the administrator find a more humane way of dealing with county staff to reach his budget goals.

"We can balance the budget without cutting people off at the knees,'' Stabins said. "Morale sucks.''

With the revenue shortfall facing Hernando County, and with the easy trims already done, Hamilton said the only option left is cutting jobs.

"There is no real, gentle way to transition a place to lesser employment,'' he said. "It's a painful enterprise.''

Stabins said he had not worked out all the details of his plan, but it will include finding more savings in the jail budget, dumping the county's membership in the regional water supply authority, and cutting the salaries and hours of department directors.

That is in stark contrast to Hamilton's proposal, which combines the jobs of the deputy administrator and budget office manager, and eliminates three positions in government broadcasting, the recreation manager job and the position of assistant engineer, among other cuts.

Nearly all of the people in the categories Hamilton has set for cutting have signed up for the county's early leave option; they have a month to decide whether to follow through.

Stabins said if these employees leave, the county will lose too much institutional knowledge. He added that Hamilton's plan does not recognize the contributions of the long-time employees.

"The private sector normally reduces hours of work before it reaches the desperate decision of laying someone off,'' Stabins said. "When you eliminate positions filled with veteran employees, you lose an awful lot.''

Stabins has been outspoken during budget discussions about making sure that managers and not just front-line employees feel the effects of the county's efforts to cut expenses to make up for a $10 million general fund revenue shortfall.

He explained that cutting the hours and pay of managers in community relations, parks and recreation or the department of public works would save enough to keep some people from losing their jobs. That would keep those with the institutional knowledge around another year and allow them to get closer to their retirement time.

Hamilton said he welcomes commissioners' ideas on the budget but noted that time is running out to implement anything too complicated. The two budget hearings are set for next month.

Hamilton also noted that the commission has approved the use of furloughs to save money and 10 furlough days for all employees not represented by the Teamsters union is a plan already moving forward. For unionized employees, those decisions must be made formally at the bargaining table and in a formal, approved contract.

Hamilton said his job is to follow whatever plan the commissioners finally settle on during Tuesday's discussion and at the hearings.

Stabins said he plans to talk to county staff groups in the coming weeks to help allay some of their fears.

Hamilton said he would do the same after the passage of the budget to help county workers understand the county's next steps into another year that might require even deeper cuts than have already been seen.

Other commissioners said they, too, had some issues to discuss about Hamilton's proposal.

Chairman Dave Russell said he would largely support what Hamilton has recommended calling them "necessary in keeping with our goals to downsize county government.''

While he said he had not heard complaints of bad morale, he was acutely aware that things were likely to continue to get worse in terms of revenue.

"The focus needs to be on our budgetary constraints and what we can and can't afford,'' he said. "It's going to be tough going for some time to come.''

Russell said he wants to talk more about the government broadcasting issue and some other options.

Commissioner John Druzbick was also interested in some other options in that area because he didn't see that privatization was going to save the county all that much money.

Druzbick had some other questions about savings in the department of public works and, like Stabins, was hoping to find a way to restore $75,000 that has been proposed as a cut in mental health services for Hernando County residents.

He said he found the low staff morale as "extremely understandable.''

"There is a phenomenal amount of change and some of it is happening pretty quick,'' he said. "There are a number of folks who are very concerned about their positions.''

While Hamilton said he also finds the staff anxiety as understandable, he also knows that Hernando County residents have also been made anxious about what they must pay for government services in the current economic downturn.

"We're trying to balance the overall needs of our own organization over the paramount concern of dealing with the anxiety of the taxpayers we serve,'' he said. "There is not a household in the county that hasn't felt the corrosive impact of this declining economy.''

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

Hernando County Commissioner Stabins forges budget plan he says will be less painful 08/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 8:37pm]

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