Monday, November 20, 2017
News Roundup

Hernando County officials try to make budget cuts

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BROOKSVILLE — Try a little harder.

That was the message the County Commission sent its staff and the elected constitutional officers last week when it asked for another $2.5 million in budget cuts.

Late last week, the county budget office was trying to comply — figuring a share of cuts from each office.

Some of the constitutional officers, however, were more reluctant. They want to work with the county, they said, but need resources to run their operations.

It is a refrain that has been repeated annually for the last six years as property values and property tax proceeds have plummeted.

The $2.5 million represents how much revenue will be lost by dropping the proposed property tax rate for the general fund from 7.3691 mills to 7 mills. Even at the 7 mills, the general fund tax rate would be an 18.3 percent increase over the current rate.

Last week, during the first county budget hearing of the year, commissioners asked County Administrator Len Sossamon to bring back a spending plan that would mesh with the 7 mill tax rate. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value.

"No sacred cows,'' commission Chairman Dave Russell told the county staff, indicating that everyone should be working to find cuts.

George Zoettlein, assistant administrator for budget and community services, said that he can start by cutting out 18.5 percent of the total from reserves, bringing the need for cuts down to about $2 million.

Because the trims will be proportional to the county department, and because the Hernando County Sheriff's Office consumes by the largest share of general fund revenue, it will be asked to make the biggest cut — more than $1 million.

One place to trim might be the $700,000 worth of raises Sheriff Al Nienhuis has included in his 2013-14 budget.

Nienhuis said last week that he still expects to have enough money left over in his current budget to cover that expense. He also called his budget reasonable and said it's too soon to talk about turning over that money to help cover the shortfall.

"I really don't think we're at that point because so many of the numbers are changing," Nienhuis said. "I'm not saying the sky is falling and I'm not saying everything is rosy, but there are still some pencils that need to be sharpened before we can really say that what they've been talking about is an accurate assessment of the situation."

Some commissioners have said the county is not yet on firm enough financial footing to hand out raises. Nienhuis said he and his staff have worked well with Sossamon and the board and will continue to do so in the final stretch of the budget process.

"We don't want to make it into a saber-rattling event," he said.

Instead of an across-the-board raise, Nienhuis plans a tiered approach to reward employees based on their experience and time on the job. The increases would range from 2 to 6 percent, and employees who have been with the agency through the duration of the pay freeze would receive the biggest bump.

"My mandate to my (budget staff) was to do something for our employees that was going to be equivalent to or maybe a little less expensive than what the county was going to do for its people and I think they've succeeded in that," he said.

The staff supervised by the County Commission figured 3 percent raises along with increases to the amount the county pays toward health insurance premiums in its original proposed budget.

Where that increase stands now is unclear, partly because the commission board is in negotiations with the Teamsters Union and commissioners have been reminded to not talk about salary and benefits outside the bargaining process.

Therefore, it will likely be Zoettlein's job to propose cuts. He is the staffer most familiar with where there might be financial wiggle room, Sossamon said.

Clerk of Circuit Court Don Barbee said his share of the general fund shortfall would be about $15,000.

"We'll continue to work with the budget office to come in line with the request of the commissioners," Barbee said.

Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson said she is certainly willing to go back and look where she could trim further. She said she is always looking for ways to become more efficient.

But she also noted that she had cut her budget before even submitting it. Things are so tight for her department, she said, that she has gathered up scrap metal equipment from her office's warehouse and sold it at salvage for about $50.

"In the past, most of the cuts have been absorbed through loss of personnel,'' Anderson said. "I have no personnel left to do that with.''

While she has built some money into her budget for some pay increases, she has no plans to give across-the-board raises. She also will soon need to fill a position necessary to run next year's elections.

"There are not a lot more cuts we can make and still provide quality election services,'' she said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.

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