BROOKSVILLE — In recent days, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis has assured county commissioners he would be able to meet their goal for his trimmed 2011-12 budget.
As the time to finalize spending plans nears, Nienhuis released details Friday of how he has been able to provide the full 5 percent cut commissioners requested. His plan relies heavily on eliminating positions, reducing employee benefit plans and taking over DUI breath-testing contracts from a private provider.
Some of the job eliminations are positions that were unfilled. Others meant reassigning workers to available positions elsewhere in the department, said Cpl. Wendy McGinnis, the agency's spokeswoman.
The 5 percent reduction totals $2,077,775.
In addition, Nienhuis said he was able to return $500,000 to the county from the operation of the county jail.
"I truly believe this budget balances both public safety and cost-cutting,'' he said in a news release, "helping the county accomplish their budget goal without sacrificing our public safety responsibilities to the community.''
Nienhuis eliminated two marine-deputy positions; the deputies were transferred to road patrol. The marine corporal is now assisted by volunteer reserve deputies.
Two civilian public service aide positions are being replaced with a volunteer aide program. One civilian director position was eliminated; those duties were transferred to a bureau chief. A sworn administrative sergeant was transferred to patrol; that person's previous duties were given to a civilian employee.
Other savings included replacing the public information officer who was a sergeant with a corporal, reducing employee health insurance benefits, eliminating the department's formal accreditation program, switching to a self-funded insurance program and approving a lower-cost employee dental insurance plan.
Other negotiations with service providers and continuing with a third year of wage freezes, including for the sheriff, rounded out the plan.
Nienhuis said that in the year since the Sheriff's Office has taken over jail operations, it has reduced the cost by almost $1.5 million by cutting expenses and generating more revenue than the private operator did.
He projects that inmates will provide 120,000 hours of labor in 2012, cleaning roads, medians and facilities, plus other chores, work worth $1.1 million.
"Having the sheriff manage the operation of the Hernando County Jail is saving significant taxpayer dollars while improving the conditions and opportunities for inmates and the community,'' the news release said.
With waning property tax revenue and a multimillion-dollar shortfall at the start of the budget season several months ago, the county's leadership team sought $3 million in cuts from the constitutional officers.
With the sheriff having the largest budget by far of the constitutional officers, Nienhuis was asked for the biggest cut: $2.5 million. He offered far less originally, just counting on the savings his office would realize from the new state mandate that employees pay 3 percent toward their retirement.
He said his agency had undergone significant cuts in recent years and his focus was on keeping Hernando County residents safe.
"We at the Sheriff's Office see firsthand the effects the weak economy has on our citizens,'' Nienhuis wrote in an early memo. "Because of this, we have a strong desire to be a team player when it comes to cutting costs. Unfortunately, we must balance this desire with the reality that we respond to labor-intensive emergencies daily.''
He sought private meetings with commissioners, but was snubbed as the county's leaders urged Nienhuis to step up publicly and make spending cuts, as commission-controlled departments had been doing for several years.
As the budget picture grew more bleak, with property values falling lower than anticipated and tax refunds ordered to major property owners such as Cemex, the cuts by the constitutional officers became more critical. Commissioners said they would hold Nienhuis to the $2.5 million they expected him to cut.
The full cut by the sheriff and an additional $200,000 commissioners wanted to see from Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams are part of the balanced budget to be presented for the County Commission's consideration Tuesday.
The first public hearing on the 2011-12 budget is 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Hernando County Government Center in Brooksville.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.