BROOKSVILLE — County Commissioner Dave Russell's idea to fold the jobs of four elected constitutional officers into other entities of county government landed with a thud Wednesday.
"You'd have the fox guarding the hen house,'' said Tax Collector Juanita Sikes. "You'd have the same people determining property values, collecting the money and spending it.''
"I don't know why they would think that they can run our offices better than we can run our offices based on some of the past history of problems they've had,'' Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek said, mentioning the snakebit Hernando Beach Channel dredge and the not-yet-begun cleanup at the contaminated public works site in south Brooksville.
"Maybe the constitutional officers should take over and run the county. We could have a referendum on that,'' he said.
Citing an article in the Florida Constitution that would appear to allow consolidation of the constitutional officers, Russell shared the idea with his fellow commissioners Tuesday as a way to downsize local government and expenses.
He specifically asked Commissioner John Druzbick to take the idea to a focus group of local business leaders who are looking for ways to consolidate duplicated services across government entities.
If those leaders could act quickly enough, they could get the consolidation question on the ballot of the Presidential Preference Primary for early next year. The focus group is comprised of local business representatives John Mitten, Morris Porton, Dudley Hampton and Randy Woodruff along with county finance director Amy Gillis and Cyndi Gambrel, budget analyst.
Russell said he was specifically looking at consolidations with the offices of Mazourek, Sikes, Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams and Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai.
On Wednesday, Russell said the county could combine the operations of Mazourek and Sikes because their duties overlap to some degree, and then combine Nicolai's operation with that of Williams. He noted that the elections office is busy at election time but is doing largely clerical work the rest of the time.
Such moves cut down on the cost of duplicating services such as legal, human resources and administrative staff, Russell explained.
Down the road, folding all the constitutionals together might take place, he said.
"We're looking at any and all alternatives to making government more efficient to deliver services in the least expensive and most expedient way possible,'' Russell said. "This is just another tool. . . . Obviously, it would have to be approved by voters.''
Russell had only talked to the legal staff and to County Administrator David Hamilton before dropping the bombshell at the end of Tuesday's regular commission meeting. He said the idea was his alone and that he'd been researching the issue for several years.
The benefit was that it would allow downsizing without the county having to go through becoming a charter county, which he said loses certain safeguards and protections for the county.
It was appropriate to bring the issue before the commission because "somebody's got to kick the ball off and we are in charge of the constitutional officers' budgets,'' Russell said.
On Wednesday, Druzbick said he hoped that the county didn't have to go the route Russell described to accomplish the consolidation needed to bring down the cost of government. He said he has seen a willingness by the constitutional officers to cooperate.
Still, he said Russell's idea does have some merit.
"It certainly conveys the message that we are extremely serious about getting our costs down,'' Druzbick said.
Mazourek said he was "blindsided" by Russell's proposal.
"What spurred this, the budget?'' he asked. "I told them what they need to do.''
Mazourek told commissioners several times that they need to set a tax rate this summer to raise the same amount of revenue that was raised last year. That would require raising the tax rate since property values fell steeply again in the past year but he urged the move because values continue to fall.
The county's shortfall in the general fund is still more than $4 million.
The rush to get the item on the ballot early in 2012 also concerned Mazourek, who said he didn't understand the hurry and noted that the number of voters for the early election would be far fewer than in the November General Election.
He also said that such a weighty change needed the examination of a far more substantial committee and not an appointed focus group.
Sikes said another drawback to the proposed merger of various constitutional entities is that it would give more power to the county commissioners and take away a basic democratic right of citizens.
"They're taking away your right to vote for these people,'' she said. "These officers should be answerable to the public and the only way they will be answerable to the public is if they vote for them.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.