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Hernando County's growing shortfall makes organizational creativity a hot topic

BROOKSVILLE — The gap between what the county planned to spend this year and the revenue flowing into its coffers continues to widen.

The latest calculation for the shortfall: $3.1 million.

That's nearly double the estimate of $1.6 million just a few weeks ago.

Declining fee collections by the county tax collector and mandated contributions to a trust fund related to staff and retiree insurance coverage are responsible for most of the latest increase, according to George Zoettlein, director of the county's office of management and budget.

Whatever the source of the latest hit on the county's general fund budget, the staff has begun looking for ways for county government to further tighten its belt.

To County Administrator David Hamilton, the latest bad financial news drives home the need for the sweeping changes in county operations that the County Commission approved last week. Since his arrival in March 2008, Hamilton has talked about his plans to shrink government and focus county staff on efficiency and customer service — what he refers to as "changing the culture.''

A key part of that goal, Hamilton's plan to reorganize the structure of county government, won unanimous support on Tuesday. He took the previous 24 divisions of government and boiled them down to eight. To demonstrate how unwieldy the old setup was, Hamilton noted that last summer during a staff meeting, it took nearly an hour for every manager to introduce themselves.

While the reorganization doesn't come with a precise figure on savings, there are several steps being taken in concert with the reorganization that will reduce staff and save money.

The first step will be for the county commissioners to consider an early separation program for county employees. Hamilton said that eligibility under the program, which is still being developed, would be based on a particular salary level. The program would be available for a set period of time.

Once employees who choose to leave are gone, open positions will be considered, and decisions will be made about how to re-adjust the county staff to fill the county's needs.

The new structure is also supposed to ease the county into consolidating services, such as information technology, that had been handled independently in several departments in the past. At the same time, the county is also looking to expand partnerships with the city of Brooksville and the Hernando School Board.

Hamilton told commissioners last week that more recommendations will come "as we seek to size the organization to reflect the resources we are left to deal with in the declining economy.''

He said he was no fan of a massive employee cut, as some counties have resorted to, in order to balance the budget. That has too big an impact on services, he said.

"We're trying to lower our altitude without losing our flight plan,'' Hamilton said.

The other key component of the new structure is that the eight division directors — along with Hamilton, Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings, and the county's elected constitutional officers — will form a county leadership team.

The team will meet every other week to discuss important issues, ranging from the monetary shortfall and downsizing the staff to examining jail costs and finding a solution to the county's limerock road issues.

"These are all very complex and complicated issues in an organization like we have that serves so many people,'' Hamilton told commissioners last week. "But we feel that this configuration provides us the best opportunity to provide you the best available information from your staff to work together cooperatively with county board in policy deliberation and policy options.''

Hamilton sees the leadership team as the group that will take a big-picture look at key issues facing the county.

"Although management is important, it is only one component of leadership,'' Hamilton wrote in a memo to commissioners. "In essence, management is your bottom line dealing with budgets, staffing and the like while leadership is your top line dealing with strategic planning based on emerging issues identified through broadly shared information.''

As much as the new leadership team will be dealing with higher-level issues, in the other major policy shift approved last week the commissioners are going to find themselves dealing with more of the nuts and bolts of county operations.

The commission on Tuesday approved the formation of two standing committees. One will discuss issues related to budget and finance, and the other business and economic development. Each will meet once a month on Tuesdays, in place of full commission meetings.

Two members of each committee will be commissioners, and three will be residents. Commission Chairman Dave Russell has said he would like to be an ex-officio member of each committee.

Already, commissioners have assigned items to be discussed by the committees, including the future of the county's public transit service and whether the county should continue its tuition reimbursement benefit to employees.

Hamilton has said that the value of the standing committees is to get the county's policymakers — the commissioners — deeper into the operation of the county.

He knows he is juggling many tasks at once: changing the way the county is structured, changing the way the commission will do its business, downsizing the county staff and changing the culture of the organization.

"From any business model,'' he said, "you don't do all these things simultaneously.''

But Hamilton said the whirlwind of activity is necessary to meet the current revenue challenges, while continuing to provide needed government services.

"We have got to rethink what we're doing with the money we have,'' he said.

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

'Changing the culture'

To help ease pressure on the budget, county government has begun looking for ways to further tighten its belt. Some options on the table:

•Consider an early separation program for county employees.

•Ease the county into consolidating services, such as information technology, that had been handled independently in several departments in the past.

•Expand partnerships with the city of Brooksville and the Hernando School Board.

•Form a county leadership team comprised of the eight county division directors, county administrator, deputy county administration and elected constitutional officers.

"From any business model, you don't do all these things simultaneously.''

County Administrator David Hamilton, who says the whirlwind of changes are necessary to meet current revenue challenges

Hernando County's growing shortfall makes organizational creativity a hot topic 01/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 3:31am]
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