BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission could be looking at even deeper cuts to county services and staff because the elected constitutional officers have cut only about one third of what they were asked to slice out of their spending proposals.
Wednesday was the deadline for the five constitutional officers to submit their 2011-12 budgets to the county. County Administrator David Hamilton has asked them to trim a total of nearly $3 million.
But once the budgets were analyzed for expenses and revenues, the constitutionals fell short by a total of $1.9 million.
That figure is in dispute, however, because sheriff's officials say the county miscalculated some of their budget numbers.
"The sheriff has essentially hit about half of the target but the budget is going in the right direction,'' Hamilton said.
The county also learned on Wednesday that property values have fallen again, meaning tax revenues for the next fiscal year will drop $4.7 million if the tax rate remains the same.
According to the so-called "good faith estimate" released by Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek's office, the county's total taxable property value for 2011 fell to $7.46 billion from 2010's $8.2 billion, a 9.3 percent reduction in value. This is the fourth year of falling values.
The county's overall general fund budget shortfall is $6.7 million. Another $1.3 million collected this year will have to be refunded because of value adjustments. The county has not determined yet how to handle that $1.3 million hit.
The county's leadership team headed up by Hamilton recently divided up those cuts between the board-controlled departments and the constitutional officers.
On the board side, the County Commission is considering eliminating positions, closing parks and cutting back services.
On the constitutionals' side, the largest cut was requested of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who was asked to trim $2.5 million from his $40 million-plus plan. He netted only $1.21 million in savings to the general fund through spending cuts and decreased revenues, according to George Zoettlein, budget manager.
Clerk of the Court Karen Nicolai was asked to cut $111,500 and she trimmed almost $113,000, slightly more than requested. Mazourek cut his budget $195,791, approximately $50,000 more than what was requested.
Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams was asked to cut $57,508 from her $951,000 budget. Instead, she submitted a budget request totaling $1.45 million.
Tax Collector Juanita Sikes submitted a lower budget, but one that contemplates far less revenues. Her spending plan is complicated by new duties her office will assume for driver's licensing in the new fiscal year, Hamilton explained.
Hamilton called the budget proposals by the constitutional officers "a good first effort'' and applauded Mazourek and Nicolai for their work to meet the targets and go beyond.
Commissioners agreed that there needs to be more effort by the constitutional officers and board-controlled departments to balance the budget.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said that the county board departments have already been stretched. "How much can we lose without more coming from everybody?'' he asked.
Dukes said he favors pay cuts for commissioners and for county employees who make more than $40,000. Positions will also need more scrutiny. "I don't think there is anyone in the county who can say I guarantee that you will have a job,'' he said.
"There is no easy answer. I think everyone is going to have to give until it hurts,'' Dukes said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said that the sheriff will have to cut more and, since his budget amounts to 55 percent of the general fund spending, he has to give more to get the budget in balance.
But Stabins said he also wished that Nienhuis would stand up like Mazourek did and speak out for a nominal increase in the tax rate to stem the plummeting property tax revenues.
"We simply can't cut our way to the answer this time,'' Stabins said. "We need to combine further spending reductions with revenue enhancements that are needed to provide quality services and quality of life.''
A tax rate increase is "the right thing to do and the time is here,'' Stabins said. "We can't keep pussyfooting around it.''
Dukes said he wouldn't support a tax increase and so did Commissioner Dave Russell.
"The times are tough for everyone right now,'' Russell said. "I don't think that anyone would expect government to raise their taxes when everyone else is being asked to cut.''
Russell also said he wanted to see constitutional officers take another hard look at their spending plans.
The County Commission meets in a budget workshop on Tuesday to discuss the constitutional budgets and their own spending plan.
Hamilton said that there is "still a ways to go'' and he looked forward to the constitutional officers attending and discussing their spending plans in detail with commissioners.
"Essentially I'm glad we started (the budget development) early because there is still more work to do,'' Hamilton said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.