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Hernando County leadership team looks at cutting costs

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County government leaders met for hours Wednesday on ways to balance a general fund budget for next year that is expected to be $5.65 million out of kilter.

That leadership team meeting followed more than six hours of budget policy talks by the County Commission on Tuesday that included recommendations to close parks and the cannery, and to cut staff and employee benefits.

The task was further complicated when they learned Tuesday that the shortfall had grown by nearly another $500,000 because property values have dropped further than earlier projections.

The goal is to close the gap by the end of the month so pink slips can be sent and other changes can be made to save money immediately.

The cuts will be shared by the departments under the County Commission and the five elected constitutional officers, County Administrator David Hamilton said Wednesday.

That has caused some heartburn in recent weeks among some of the constitutional officers.

Clerk of Circuit Court Karen Nicolai had tried to set up private meetings between the constitutional officers and individual commissioners but those sessions were canceled after the St. Petersburg Times reported on the efforts.

Hamilton invited them to appear at Tuesday's budget workshop to discuss their concerns in public, but only three of the five showed up, with Nicolai and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams as no-shows.

Nicolai's finance director Amy Gillis attended, and Nicolai said she was watching the broadcast and was prepared to go to the meeting if needed.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis' chief deputy, Mike Maurer, attended the Tuesday commission meeting, as did Tax Collector Juanita Sikes. She talked about how her budget was based on the fees she collects and therefore she could not control whether her budget would go up or down.

Sikes said that because her office will soon be taking over drivers licensing tasks she will not be able to turn back as much in extra fees to the county as she has done in previous years.

Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek, after telling the board about the growth in the size of the budget gap, offered to discuss his office's operations. Commissioners, however, set another workshop on June 7 to talk to the constitutional officers. That will be the week after they turn in their budgets to the county.

The constitutional officers all signed a letter explaining that Florida law sets out their responsibilities and that their budgets will be based on meeting those requirements. They also state that the process of mandating "across the board cuts based on a certain percentage (which is what has been recommended to date) is not only ineffective but inappropriate as it applies to Constitutional officers.''

When asked if the five elected officials will meet the budget cut requirements suggested by the leadership team, Nicolai said Wednesday, "We'll do the best we can.''

Hamilton said that Wednesday's leadership team meeting helped top officials focus on the policy areas where cost cutting can begin.

In one case, the operations of Mosquito Control have been recommended for cutting out of the general fund. Instead, county staff will move ahead with a proposal to finance the department by setting up a special taxing unit, which officials estimate to be about $7.20 per year per typical property owner.

If board members accept that proposal but decide they want no impact on the bottom line of property tax bills, the staff could recommend suspending the sensitive lands tax in the coming year. That would cancel out the new taxing unit's costs for taxpayers, Hamilton said.

Another focus for savings will be on the county employee health plans, he said. A representative of the county's broker gave an extensive report earlier this week with some possible changes suggested that could save the county $1 million or more in the coming year.

Among the changes under consideration is the shrinking of the menu of options that is offered employees as well as possibly making employees contribute to their own health care costs.

Hamilton also said there has been a strong emphasis on keeping front-line workers and leaving vacant positions unfilled. While the net loss of full-time-equivalent positions in the proposal is about 38, 11 people would lose their jobs.

Hamilton's plan is to get the general fund changes in place within the next month so that pink slips could go out at the end of the month. That gives officials several months between then and the final budget hearings in September to work on other projects such as balancing other budget funds, work that may take one more year after this one, he said.

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

Hernando County leadership team looks at cutting costs 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 9:25pm]
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