BROOKSVILLE — County officials were combing through legal and financial details on several unresolved budget issues Thursday, but it seemed fairly certain that mosquito control will be spared the budget ax.
There also seemed to be options to find the $400,000 in additional cuts the county has asked of Sheriff Al Nienhuis, but which he has yet to make, and the $200,000 in cuts supervisor of elections Annie Williams has been asked to make.
Layoff notices to the five mosquito control employees, which would have had to go out today, were placed on hold, according to Cheryl Marsden, director of administrative services.
Legal research into mechanisms to fund the service was ongoing, according to County Attorney Garth Coller. He could say no more than that on Thursday after he and other county officials met to discuss the issue.
A planned tax to pay for mosquito control was killed during Tuesday evening's budget session when Commissioner Wayne Dukes voted against it. The commission had learned just recently that a unanimous vote was needed to pass the tax, which would have provided funding for the roughly $600,000 budget.
The commission instead agreed to reinstate the sensitive lands fund tax in place of the mosquito tax, and Commissioner Dave Russell said Thursday that money could be used to fund the department if other options do not work out.
That option also raises some legal complications, which county officials would have to work through before Sept. 27, when the final public hearing on the 2011-12 budget will take place.
The commission still plans a referendum next year to give residents the choice of whether they still want to pay taxes to support the sensitive lands fund or pay for controlling the mosquito population.
An explosion in the mosquito population earlier this year flooded the county with phone calls from anxious residents. Money beyond the budget had to be spent to beef up mosquito spraying and get the problem under control. In addition, the potentially deadly West Nile virus was found in the county's sentinel chickens in northwest Hernando earlier this year.
Russell is adamant that mosquito control will not close up shop, saying it is an important health issue and one that is critical to constituents.
"We will have mosquito control in this county,'' he said. "A lot of people are very concerned about this … and I think it's an extremely necessary function to have in Hernando County.''
Also part of the ongoing budget discussion is how to find the remaining funds the county asked the sheriff to cut from his budget and the money not yet cut from the elections office.
Bill Kicklighter, the Sheriff's Office's public safety bureau chief, said the sheriff has worked with the county to reduce costs and bring in new revenue and that every time the Sheriff's Office has approached the county's budget-cutting goal, the amount has been increased.
Figuring in savings at the Sheriff's Office and the jail, money left over in the current budget and revenue generated, Kicklighter said, the sheriff technically has returned $3.8 million to the county, and he said the commission was satisfied with that contribution.
"As occurs every year, efforts to save money will continue throughout the end of this fiscal year and into the next," Kicklighter wrote in an e-mail to the Times. The projected savings "can grow to a larger number if we continue to be successful in our efforts to save money, control overtime, and don't experience a hurricane, major crime or any of a number of larger scale events outside of our control.''
Williams did not return a phone call seeking comment about her budget.
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins said he hopes that as the county reconciles its books as the 2010-11 fiscal year closes, more cash will carry forward to make up the difference in the budgets of the sheriff and the supervisor of elections, but he doesn't want to see the budget cutting end.
"No constitutional officer needs to lay back and say, 'I've done my share' because there is a lot more work to be done,'' Adkins said.
Those thoughts were echoed by County Administrator David Hamilton.
With an expected decline in property values of another 5 percent or more next year, "this budget work is never going to end,'' even after the 2011-12 budget is approved Sept. 27, Hamilton said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins said he also wants to see the sheriff dig a little deeper. While much of the remaining budget deficit might be resolved as the books are closed on the 2010-11 fiscal year, Nienhuis can still afford to do more, he said.
Russell said he is certain the county staff will resolve the remaining budget issues.
"We may have to go back to the sheriff. I don't know," he said. "Annie, she's found some efficiencies, but she may need to find more.
"I'm confident we will have a balanced budget we can all live with when it's done.''
Commissioner John Druzbick was less optimistic.
While he strongly supports finding a way to pay for mosquito control because he knows Hernando residents want the service, he expressed frustration with both the commission's mosquito tax vote and other votes against the overall budget and tax rates by Dukes and Adkins.
They voted no but offered no solutions, he said.
"I just don't know where we're going to balance it,'' he said. "I'm at a loss.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.