BROOKSVILLE — For hours on Wednesday, county commissioners heard sobering reports from department heads about the real-life impacts that deep service cuts needed to span a $10.4 million budget shortfall will cause Hernando County.
Parks would close and recreation programs be all but eliminated. Libraries would stop routine maintenance, such as cleaning carpets and replacing roofs. Animal services would no longer pick up dead animals on the side roads. Waterways would no longer be cleaned. THE Bus would park.
By the end of the day, it was clear the board wasn't ready to gut these services and drop the 47 jobs that staff had recommended. Instead, they sought a balance between cuts and raising more money.
They talked about an increase in the property tax rate, one that would still mean a lower tax bill for 70 percent of the county's homesteaded properties. Commission Chairman John Druzbick said that shouldn't be an excuse to not cut expenses but it was something to consider.
Rolling the tax rate up to the rate that would raise the same amount of tax money as last year would bring the county an additional $7 million, according to budget director George Zoettlein.
But with property values still falling so steeply, 70 percent of property owners would still see a drop in the county part of their tax bill. The other 30 percent of long-time homeowners whose values were capped by the Save Our Homes program, would see an increase either way, officials said.
Other ideas were also considered.
The Rotary dog park on the chopping block could feature "barking meters'' so that users would pay a fee to park at the park. Dog owners were willing to pay, Commissioner Dave Russell said.
The county's other 2,000 parking spaces could be metered as well, suggested Commission Jeff Stabins. And why not charge a "fat cat" fee for county officials who park in the garage under the government center, he said.
Russell suggested asking voter approval to use money that is raised to buy land for preservation to instead preserve parks and recreation programs.
They even talked about taking the controversial red light cameras to offset falling property tax revenue. Why not raise money from lawbreakers? Stabins asked.
County administrator David Hamilton may have had the most unexpected suggestion to help balance the budget. After watching half the day's speakers talk about how the loss of employees would cost service provided to residents, he suggested saving $500,000 by cutting management.
He pointed out that none of the 47 positions recommended for cuts so far have been directors, managers or supervisors.
"We're looking at management sharing the pain,'' he said.
He specifically called out the Parks and Recreation Department for recommending nearly two dozen front-line workers lose their jobs but keeping a recreation coordinator who would no longer have anyone working for him.
"This is ludicrous,'' Hamilton said.
Another example was Hernando County Fire Rescue, which wants to add firefighters. Do they really need to have 36 managers? Hamilton asked.
Hamilton said he would present a plan in August which would further streamline the county's management structure, cut the county's leadership team from eight to five and complete an inhouse study of the management structure including a hard look at managers' salaries.
"The time has come to completely realign this organization,'' Hamilton said.
Some of the most startling impacts that the staff-recommended reductions would be felt in parks and recreation where nearly a dozen parks may close or be leased-out and programs would be pared down so much they would barely exist.
Even with a one-time $100,000 payment to parks and recreation by the Tourist Development Council to maintain Bayport and Pine Island, the county would still have to give the Lonnie Coburn Park to the Fair Association, the Community Activity Center and Hernando Park to Brooksville and lose 22 employees, according to Ron Pianta, land services division director.
Also, nine other facilities would have to close or be leased to another entity including Veterans Memorial Park, Stewy's Skate Park, the Rotary Dog Park, the soccer complex at Anderson Snow Park, Ernie Wever Youth Park, Amity Trails Park and the Little Red Schoolhouse ball field and boat ramp parking lot.
The cuts would mean that the county would no longer meet the proper level of service required by growth management regulations, Pianta noted. Closing parks would also raise another set of concerns ranging from vandalism to the cost to start the parks back up again in the future.
The commission also heard pleas in the early part of their workshop to find some way to save THE Bus from being eliminated but deferred more discussion on that topic until they could gather more information. More discussion of mass transit will continue at today's budget workshop which begins at 9 a.m.
Commissioners also heard that they may face another $1 million hit. Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek said the county may have to refund that amount to Cemex, which has filed a lawsuit against Mazourek's office over tangible property values.
The suit is one of several Mazourek is facing from commercial interests this year.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.