BROOKSVILLE — From closing the Little Rock Cannery to offering an early leave incentive for all county employees, the Hernando County Commission's Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday made its list of where commissioners might look to solve their $10-million revenue shortfall.
Committee members suggested deeper scrutiny to find ways to reduce spending for the jail, facilities maintenance, parks, community relations, the cooperative extension service and the cannery, where residents are able to can fruits and vegetables.
The group also voted to recommend that the early leave incentive offered to highly paid county staffers be extended to all staff members, and that every other available method to cut payroll costs be left on the table. That includes layoffs, pay cuts, a pay freeze and reduced work hours.
The committee stopped short of recommending other broad measures for making up the shortfall in the county's 2009-10 general fund spending plan.
Fees should be added or increased only as a last resort, the committee decided. Members also suggested that the County Commission consider raising the gas tax only if it could reduce the property tax for the transportation trust fund by a corresponding amount.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who sits on the budget committee, said he would like to see some across-the-board cuts.
"Every department ought to be looking at 5 to 10 percent reductions from what they budgeted last year. Otherwise, I don't know how we'll ever get to a $10 million reduction,'' Stabins said.
He added that the county's elected constitutional officers — the sheriff, the clerk of circuit court, the tax collector, the property appraiser and the supervisor of elections — should be looking at the same reductions.
The committee also voted to recommend changes to the county's budget reserve policy. While the existing policy allows the mix of different reserves to total a quarter of the general fund budget, the new policy proposal sets a minimum total of 18.5 percent.
Although the committee agreed to recommend the new policy, it also said that the excess cash made available by reducing the amount of required reserves should be used only as a last resort to help balance the budget.
Committee members spent much of their discussion time Tuesday talking about the details of how various county funds and programs work as they continue to educate themselves about the government's complex accounting system. At various points, they chided staffers for not having on hand all of the details they requested.
Throughout the session, Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings tried to get the group to focus on making broad policy recommendations to the County Commission, rather than getting wrapped up in details.
Committee member Anna Liisa Covell was adamant that the county needs to face realities that the private sector is already dealing with, including the disappearance of jobs and the cutting of work hours.
"This is a sign of the times,'' she said.
Covell also questioned whether Jennings' position and its $150,000 annual price tag had been considered for cutting.
Jennings said he didn't want to be in a position of having to defend himself, but noted that the position has provided stability that the county government hasn't always enjoyed, and he said there is a lot of work to do in managing the county.
County Attorney Garth Coller went on to say that during a time when County Administrator David Hamilton is making a lot of changes, without a deputy, the county faces a troublesome "lack of management.'' He noted that Hernando has "a very active administrative style right now'' under Hamilton.
Stabins suggested having representatives from the newly approved Teamsters Union come forward with their ideas for reducing payroll costs, but Jennings said those discussions are more appropriately handled at the bargaining table.
It should be the county telling the Teamsters how the county wants to do its business, argued resident Anthony Palmieri.
With public discussion of the 2009-10 budget just getting under way, Stabins warned that the work ahead will be difficult.
"We've got to get to $10 million. We're not going to get to it just by eliminating the cannery,'' he said. "We need to take a machete to this budget, and we need the help of the constitutional officers.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.