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Hernando County must cut millions to balance budget

BROOKSVILLE — The great office shuffle began weeks ago at the Hernando County Government Center. The goal: Save money by bringing county departments using leased space back home.

The County Commission also cut service offered by THE Bus in half, again an effort to save some dollars.

County purchasing officials have demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars they say they are owed from the private company operating the county jail.

In addition, closing the Little Rock Cannery, reducing hours at the landfill and convenience stations, and staff cutbacks and furloughs have all been bandied about.

Hernando County's budget-cutting is in full swing.

By law, the commission must receive a balanced budget by Wednesday, and county finance officials have been scrambling to make that deadline by finding ways to make up for an anticipated $9.58 million revenue shortfall in the general fund.

As of the end of the week, they were still shy by a couple of million dollars, according to George Zoettlein, director of the office of management and budget.

No wonder then that the agenda for Tuesday's commission meeting is packed with issues related to the budget.

Zoettlein will detail some of the ways the county has thus far filled the gap between general fund revenue and spending, including:

• $3.15 million has been cut from county departments and programs.

• $400,000 has been cut from the jail contract.

• $160,000 was trimmed from the budgets of the elected constitutional officers.

• $3 million of the shortfall will be offset by using reserves.

Additional cuts have been proposed by the staff, including $130,000 from other unspecified agencies, $40,000 from the office of the supervisor of elections and a requested $2 million cut from the sheriff's budget.

The county's original calculations considered taking an additional $700,000 from reserves to balance the budget, but county officials want to spread the available reserves over several years to make up for shortfalls and have put a $3 million limit on how much can be taken from reserves in a single year.

That means $700,000 will need to be found elsewhere in the budget.

In addition to the shortfall in the general fund, the county has also had to find a way to stem a $7 million shortfall in the water and sewer fund and a $3 million shortfall in the solid waste and recycling fund. Both of those funds are part of the Utilities Department.

Reductions in those areas include moving capital projects to a later date and various reductions in operations and maintenance costs.

The county's philosophy has been that, since this year's property tax revenue will be similar to totals in 2006, departments have been asked to scale back to 2006 budget numbers where possible.

There has been a lot of discussion about the Sheriff's Office budget cuts, especially since surveys of county residents indicate that public safety is their No. 1 priority.

Originally, Sheriff Richard Nugent was asked for cuts totaling $4.2 million. Nugent responded with a long list of programs he would have to gut in order to meet that request. They included eliminating the traffic, marine and aviation units; closing sheriff's substations, and eliminating popular drug and gang awareness programs.

Now the county has asked for $2 million in cuts, and Nugent is expected to announce his plans later this month.

Commission Chairman David Russell said he thought such a cut by Nugent is realistic.

"There are programs, I believe, ancillary to his core mission that should be looked at,'' Russell said.

On Tuesday, commissioners will also get a chance to review other money-saving options. For example, they will consider moving the Hernando Housing Authority from rented space in downtown Brooksville to space in the Development Services building off the State Road 50 bypass.

Community Services will be pitching to the commission a plan for Hernando County Government Broadcasting to begin performing fee-based video production to private concerns to offset part of their costs.

Another proposal is to lease the Little Rock Cannery to a non-county entity, saving operational costs.

Also on the agenda is an agreement between the county and the clerk of the circuit court for joint operation of their information technology departments. That would eliminate the need to replace the former director of the county IT department, Garry Allen, who recently left as part of the early leave program for the most highly compensated county employees.

Although the county has talked about opening the early leave plan to all employees, Cheryl Marsden, human resources director, will report to commissioners that the plan is not feasible, according to materials prepared for the Tuesday meeting.

Dropping the salary-level requirement and using the leave package offered before, Marsden calculated that offering the early leave to all employees would cost the county about $335,000 if 18 of the 355 eligible workers took the deal.

That would save the county more than $1 million next year, but "there is not funding available in the 2009 fiscal year budget to cover the cost of an early leave program,'' according to the backup memo.

Russell did say there is some hope that the county could save some money by implementing furloughs for employees. The suggestion under discussion is asking employees to take 12 furlough days during the 2009-10 fiscal year — one day a month.

That would save an estimated $533,000 from the general fund, or $1.23 million from all funds.

That proposal will have to be negotiated for the unionized county employees. But Russell said he was confident that the furlough days could be sold to the union as a better alternative than layoffs.

Russell, who owns a swimming pool business, said he has asked his own employees to do the same thing, reducing their work week to avoid having to lay off anyone. No one has refused, he said.

"I think we're going to get the same response here,'' Russell said. "People understand we have limited funds.''

While Russell said he believes there is still work to be done on the budget, he is pleased with the overall progress.

"It's a long-term process, one that began with (County Administrator) David Hamilton's entry on the scene, who has been carrying through with the board's mandate for streamlining and downsizing,'' Russell said.

"We do have fewer departments, a more consolidated service delivery system. Overall, there has been a cost savings to taxpayers.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or (352) 848-1434.

Some of the cuts the county has already made:

$3.15M from various county departments and program.

$400K from the jail contract.

$160K from the budgets of the elected constitutional officers.

Source: George Zoettlein, director of office management and budget

Hernando County must cut millions to balance budget 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 11:56am]
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