BROOKSVILLE — For each of the past several years, officials have sounded the alarm over Hernando County's growing budget deficit.
On Tuesday, they painted their most dire picture yet.
Without an increase in revenue, "we will probably have to eliminate over half of Hernando County's government services,'' budget manager George Zoettlein said.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins echoed the gloomy forecast, saying that time may have come to simply shut down entire departments of county government.
"Armageddon is here,'' he said.
Zoettlein presented the latest numbers during a workshop as commissioners begin to shape the 2012-13 budget. As it stands, with property values projected to fall another 8 percent and constitutional officers' proposed budgets close to this year's, the county needs to find $7.1 million in spending cuts in its projected $94 million general fund budget.
One of Zoettlein's suggestions was to establish separate taxing units for libraries and for parks and recreation, giving those services separate tax support. But some commissioners feared that such a move would simply result in an overall increase in property taxes.
The commission soundly rejected the separate taxing units, voting 4-0 with Commissioner Jim Adkins absent.
In Zoettlein's presentation, he also showed how the board could raise the tax rate to avoid a shortfall and how the board could reduce the shortfall to $3.8 million by raising the rate just high enough to bring in the same revenue as this year.
But those ideas brought a quick negative reaction.
Commissioner Dave Russell said the idea of raising the same amount of revenue was not an option.
"I don't want there to be any false perceptions that we're going to be revenue neutral,'' he said. "There are no more magic bullets.''
He said those were all used during the last four years as the county struggled with falling tax revenues.
Stabins agreed, saying he couldn't imagine his colleagues increasing the tax rate. He asked Zoettlein to figure out how much of the decrease in budgets over the years has been borne by board-controlled departments and how much by the county's five constitutional officers.
"That pain has not been shared across the board,'' Stabins said.
Zoettlein also pointed out that the budget shortfall does not take into account millions in other potential liabilities facing the county, including the looming repayment of Medicaid costs to the state, the possible repayment of employee retirement contributions, possible new economic development incentives and a multimillion-dollar radio purchase being looked at by the sheriff.
Russell spoke directly to the sheriff and his staff, who were in the audience Tuesday.
"Honestly,'' he said, "we don't have the money for that new system. We don't.''
Zoettlein told commissioners that even if they want to consider the elimination of departments, there are programs the county must provide under state mandates. Commissioners suggested that, before their next budget discussion, Zoettlein produce a report that outlines those mandates.
Russell said that even after the county figures out what the state requires and what could be eliminated, he would favor making sure that an equitable share of the $7.1 million shortfall be applied to departments and to the constitutional officers.
Several other commissioners nodded their support.
The board also heard a short presentation by Sheriff Al Nienhuis about his proposed budget. He outlined the services his office has taken over in recent years and how he has held the line on spending. This year, he noted, he is offering to take over the county's four animal services officers at a savings of $300,000 to the county.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.