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Hernando faces more budget pain

BROOKSVILLE — Already planning to dip into reserves for $2-million to help keep Hernando County afloat next year, County Administrator David Hamilton has just learned that several more bombshells are heading his way.

The county will likely be short another $1.6-million this year as revenue projections show even steeper declines in property tax dollars, earnings from investments and state funds.

The news gets even worse in 2010: The county expects to be shy another $4-million, according to a revenue forecast memo by the county's budget office, finance officials and property appraiser. County commissioners will discuss the forecast Tuesday.

Hamilton has said that he does not intend to dig deeper into the reserves for operating funds. Calling the budget shortfall "probably the biggest challenge of our lifetime, fiscally ever,'' Hamilton said last week that the time has come for the serious work of downsizing government.

"These are very, very challenging times," he said, "but my approach is acknowledge it. Deal with it.''

He has repeatedly said that he cannot see providing fewer services to the public even if the revenue is going down because as more people in the community are hurting financially themselves, they turn increasingly to government for help.

"We can do a better job of providing services at a more effective cost to the public not only because it's always the right thing to do but now it's critical that we do because there is less money,'' he said. "We have to do more because more is always expected of government when there is less in society.

"Love or hate government, and I know we have this tradition of ambivalence toward government in America, we always turn to it in tough times … because it's ours and it's there and, in varying degrees, we at least have some control over it.''

Streamlining, teamwork essential

Hamilton has identified a number of projects staff will focus on in the next few months.

In late January, he will bring to the County Commission his plan to boil down dozens of departments and divisions to a limited key leadership team he has outlined on paper but not yet pulled together. That first meeting is expected in the next few weeks.

If commissioners approve the plan, they can then invite the elected constitutional officers to work as part of the leadership team, which is something Hamilton thinks is needed to reduce overlapping services and redundant functions.

Next, he will present a voluntary leave program now being crafted by the county's new human resources director, Cheryl Marsden. It will be offered to top county bosses to meet Hamilton's credo of "more management, less managers.''

County officials will also be talking about what county positions will be cut during budget constraints. "At end of the day, not all of the positions we're going to be able to keep. We just can't afford it,'' Hamilton said.

Marsden's other upcoming tasks include reviewing personnel policies and reworking the county's pay grid even as the county employees are soon to vote on whether to organize under the Teamsters Union.

Another top priority is to form a budget committee, a goal set by the County Commission.

Hamilton's idea is to have the committee meet monthly in place of one of the current commission meetings and to include the board chairman and another commissioner, which would mean all their work would be governed by the Florida Government in the Sunshine Law. Meetings would be public and all materials would be public record.

Hamilton sees the committee as a way to give commissioners a deeper role in county operations. The committee will report back to the full County Commission for budget decisions.

Hamilton's goals for the new year also include more cooperation with the constitutional officers whose budgets the county commissioners approve. He points to cooperative efforts with the city of Brooksville in the past year and recent contact with Pasco County officials as ways to both increase government efficiencies but also begin thinking in a more regional way.

"What we're configuring though is the whole culture of the county and the way we do business so that we can provide the services that the public expects of us. It's a slight but very fundamental nuance,'' he said of the cooperative approach. "But it's very important.''

Capital projects remain a priority

Much of the discussion with Pasco officials centered on utility issues and the improvements needed along County Line Road. Hamilton has spoken of a vision to make the roadway a major east-west highway in the future, eventually connecting U.S. 19 to Interstate 75.

Pasco officials have shown interest in working with Hernando on parts of that project.

Other capital projects for the new year include a new judicial complex. Hamilton said that while some question whether the county should be spending on capital projects when cuts are needed in the operational budget, he believes "public investment in public infrastructure'' would be a help to the local economy by putting a number of people to work for a while.

Putting those dollars into the operations side of county government instead, "it just defers reality,'' Hamilton said, and that reality is that the operational side should shrink even if tough decisions are needed.

"We're not planning on doing this with the reserves and wishful thinking. This is a big challenge. The sooner we face it, the better,'' Hamilton said.

Assembling a list of capital projects has also been made a priority because of the talk that President-elect Barack Obama will make federal money available for infrastructure as part of his economic stimulus plan soon after he takes office.

Hamilton said he knows the tasks before him and commissioners this year are going to make for "a busy, busy calendar'' but residents have given them their marching orders.

"As long as we get the price of government at an acceptable level to the public, that's always the main concern: the taxpayer. We still have work to do there,'' he said. "Beyond philosophical, it's practical. The money isn't there.''

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

Hernando faces more budget pain 01/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 4:27pm]
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