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Hernando County wants jail cost concessions

BROOKSVILLE — A marathon day of fussing over Hernando County's budget crisis began with a call to end the county administrator's "reign of terror'' and ended with a long list of compromises.

The County Commission wrestled over two plans on how to hack hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the general fund budget.

One, by County Administrator David Hamilton, relied heavily on staff cuts and consolidations.

It was those cuts, and the manner in which Hamilton has proposed them, that drew fire at the meeting's outset.

Frank McDowell, the county's former code enforcement director, told the board that employee morale "is at an all-time low'' and "fear is rampant among your employees.''

He blamed "Mr. Hamilton's reign of terror'' for the fear and said, "the employees of the county do not trust Mr. Hamilton or this board.''

Commissioner Jeff Stabins sought to address those anxieties in his own budget proposal.

Staff would largely be spared and more than a half million dollars in savings would come from cuts to the operator of the county jail, Corrections Corporation of America.

So sure was Stabins that he could win those concessions from CCA that the commissioner said he "would stake my political reputation on it.''

Stabins said he had been told that the jail operators could cut their costs by more than $500,000 if Hernando would consider extending their contract another three years.

He added that CCA officials are unhappy with the hard line taken by the county.

Hernando has withheld more than $422,000 it says it is owed by CCA and has effectively cut another $400,000 from the jail budget by crafting a county budget that does not include the annual 4 percent boost in fees that is in the contract.

Stabins noted that CCA has never agreed to forgo that increase. He added that if the county does not alter its stance, the staff should include the cost of litigation that will result in its budget.

Hamilton pointed out that jail costs have been one of the fastest growing expenses in the budget.

It was his intent, he said, that when CCA's contract runs out next year the county seek proposals and determine whether they offered a better choice than having the jail run in-house.

Hamilton added that CCA has had a "monopoly'' and run the county jail for more than 20 years.

Commissioners agreed to a special meeting Tuesday with CCA officials.

In other areas, commissioners directed the administration to craft a description for the job of director of administration and finance, which would combine the jobs held now by deputy administrator Larry Jennings, who has announced his departure, and budget and finance director George Zoettlein, who has added his name to the list of employees interested in early leave.

Asked by Commissioner Rose Rocco whether Zoettlein could apply, Hamilton said he could, adding the board would decide who gets the job.

The commission also agreed to a scaled-back community services department that would keep two video production staff members and a community relations coordinator but would lose one video staff member in addition to the one cut earlier from the budget.

The department also would resume switchboard duties.

Brooksville resident Rich Whitaker, who worked for decades in public access TV, urged the commission to continue to fund government broadcasting. He said the medium "is your voice to the people, and why is it on the chopping block?"

Whitaker said the county risks losing support from the community because "we tend to support what we understand."

The board also agreed not to eliminate the position of assistant county engineer.

Stabins said he would not support Hamilton's recommendation to kill the position now held by Gregg Sutton, but he said that the public works department had given the county "huge problems'' over the years and he hoped the discussion was "one hell of a wake-up call'' for it to do a better job.

In parks and recreation, commissioners heard pleas from the public to not scale back maintenance, because parks were already beginning to look unkempt, and to keep the position of Harry Johnson, the recreation manager, who had helped many in the community.

Hamilton reminded commissioners that they had approved a reorganization plan that included fewer managers and that Johnson's position was redundant.

Commissioners agreed to cut $150,000 rather than $300,000 from parks and recreation now.

Commissioners also unanimously agreed to have Hamilton find elsewhere the $75,000 that he had recommended cutting from mental health services after seeing the half dozen people who wanted to plead for the money stand up in the audience.

The board agreed with a committee recommendation to avoid cuts to the Guardian ad Litem program for the current year, and accepted a proposal to increase fees for Pine Island and Rogers Park from $2 to $3.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County wants jail cost concessions 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 8:50pm]
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