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Hernando County's top priority for 2010 is a familiar one: balancing budget

“The 600-pound gorilla is the budget,’’ County Commission Chairman David Russell said during a workshop to set priorities.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

“The 600-pound gorilla is the budget,’’ County Commission Chairman David Russell said during a workshop to set priorities.

BROOKSVILLE — Even as 2010 begins, Hernando County leaders are anticipating they will have to find $4.5 million to balance their budget for the next fiscal year.

It's small wonder that the budget was the major point of discussion Friday as the County Commission, elected constitutional officers and the county's leadership team met in a special workshop at the Emergency Operations Center to set priorities for the year.

Aided by facilitator Stanley Giannet, provost of the North Campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College, the group listed dozens of issues that must be addressed in 2010.

Commissioners listed their individual priorities, listened to those of staff and the constitutional officers, then ranked the list. As expected, operating within their means as property tax revenues continue to fall topped the list.

"The 600-pound gorilla is the budget,'' said Commission Chairman David Russell. "Everything feeds into that and everything we've discussed today feeds out of that.''

Other priorities included attracting businesses to diversify the tax base, improving employee morale, consolidating services with other governmental entities, employee and public safety, improving communications, employee training and improving the commercial building permit process.

Commissioners also are concerned about infrastructure ranging from paving lime rock roads to making water and sewer service available where needed.

The county's leadership team's concerns included:

• A streamlined commercial building permit process for changing the use of buildings, according to Michael McHugh, business development service director.

• While the Sensitive Lands Fund can be used to acquire land for conservation, those dollars collected from property taxes cannot also be used to maintain those areas, putting a burden on the general fund, reported Ron Pianta, planning director.

• Lime rock roads generate calls for better maintenance and improvement by the county, said Charles Mixson, public works director.

• Human Resources director Cheryl Marsden said employee training was her focus because supervisors without proper training continue to ask illegal questions of applicants and make decisions that put the county at risk of lawsuits, high turnover and rising unemployment costs.

• Better staffing on fire trucks was fire Chief Michael Nickerson's issue. Four of the county's eight fire engines are run with just two people, while the standard recommended is four and the county has been striving to provide at least three where possible.

• With nearly 9,000 walk-in customers and nearly 12,000 phone calls in the first quarter alone, customer service in code enforcement and Animal Services has been overwhelmed, according to Jean Rags, health and human services director. Delayed responses, complaints and irate citizens have been the result.

• With many of the county's responsibilities mandated, policymakers will need to prioritize which nonmandated programs must be cut to make up for the revenue shortfall, said George Zoettlein, director of administrative services and budget.

• Utility director Joe Stapf's primary issue was what the county should do with garbage collection later this year. With the existing franchise agreements with three haulers expiring, he suggested the county may be at a crossroads and may want to do something different in the future.

• County Administrator David Hamilton focused on the 39 percent of the general fund that pays for public safety, namely the sheriff's budget and the jail contract. Those funds reduce what's available for other services but those functions always rate high with citizens, he said.

Constitutional officers also identified their concerns with property appraiser Alvin Mazourek's office, noting that the loss of property value was a main concern.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai said the tasks in her office must still be done even with a reduced staff.

Sally Daniel of the office of Tax Collector Juanita Sikes voiced concern for employee safety in the wake of some agitated customers seen recently in the office.

Annie Williams, supervisor of elections, said she is finding ways to consolidate precincts and poll worker jobs and has adopted a new ballot procedure which would allow her to print ballots as needed rather than order batches of ballots in advance.

Hamilton told commissioners that they would likely be working on every one of the issues in the coming year and he would bring a plan of action back to them soon.

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

Hernando County's top priority for 2010 is a familiar one: balancing budget 01/08/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 7:28pm]

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