BROOKSVILLE — 'Tis the season for giving — and returning.
In that spirit, Sheriff Richard Nugent is giving back to Hernando County government $2 million in unspent funds from his 2008-09 budget.
That's about $540,000 more than Nugent had projected to return and the most he has sent back in at least four years.
The department wound up spending less than expected for salaries, benefits, overtime and fuel said Chief Bill Kicklighter. The sheriff also meant to be conservative in his estimate to the County Commission on how much would money would come back, he said.
"The last thing we wanted to do was give them a number and then have less to give them," Kicklighter said.
The department benefitted from a year without a major storm or hikes in gas prices, he said.
"That was the big key," he said. "As you're approaching the end of the budget year, you're still in the heart of hurricane season, so we were very fortunate."
The larger figure means the sheriff's actual expenses for the year came in at $30.6 million — 3.1 percent less than 2007-2008. It's the first time since at least 2005 the department has spent less than the previous year.
The money goes back into the county's general fund.
If the $2 million figure seems familiar, it's because that happens to be the same amount that County Administrator David Hamilton asked Nugent to cut from his 2009-10 budget request of $33 million. When factoring in the addition of the Emergency Management Department last year, Nugent's request amounted to a zero percent increase from the previous year.
So Nugent balked, saying Hamilton's requested cut would be too deep.
The sheriff proposed to use $1.3 million in his carry-forward money — making for a $700,000 cut — which would have been able to fund the DARE drug prevention program and at least some of the community substations.
After much back and forth between the commission and the sheriff, commissioners ultimately settled for a compromise budget of $31.9 million for next year. That was a little over $1 million less than what Nugent requested and $350,000 more than what he expected to spend this year but not enough to pay for the DARE program, five community substations and several other programs and positions.
When asked if Nugent was tempted to ask the commission if he could keep at least some of the extra $540,000 to put toward some of the cut programs, Kicklighter said no.
"He stood before the board and the public and agreed to make the cuts, so he wasn't going to go back on his word," he said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, whose criticism of Nugent's budget request made for some tense exchanges between the two men last September, said he was happy about the additional money coming back from Nugent this year and especially pleased that the department's expenditures decreased from last year.
"That is excellent news, but it's a trend that must continue," Stabins said.
Nugent deserves credit even without a storm or spiking gas prices, Chairman Dave Russell said.
"That just goes to show you that the sheriff's done a great job at budgeting and demonstrating quite a bit of fiscal restraint," he said. "Controlling overtime is a significant accomplishment. That's tough in departments with emergency response."
Constitutional officers typically give back at least some money at the end of the year. This year, for example, the tax collector will give back $2.4 million; the property appraiser, about $315,000; the clerk of court, about $301,000; and the supervisor of elections, about $7,500.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.