Hernando parks, libraries, and social and veterans services face steep budget cutbacks

BROOKSVILLE — Skateboard enthusiasts, fans of the canning center and those seeking quick and free access to the latest bestsellers may all find out soon what can happen when county government's property tax revenue plummets.

In free-fall for the past few years, property values have sunk rapidly and, with the tax rate staying the same, so has the revenue generated for county operations.

Property tax revenue has dropped from $59.6 million in 2008 to a projected $40.7 million for 2012 — and will drop even further as adjustments continue to be made in property values.

Department heads stood recently before the Hernando County Commission to read through lists of positions that would be cut and services that would shrink or be eliminated to make up for what will be more than a $5.7 million shortfall in the county's 2011-12 budget.

Gone is the cushion provided by a high reserve fund from several years ago, when the hope was that the economy would turn around quickly.

It didn't, County Administrator David Hamilton said, and now the real pain is about to begin.

One of the most visible places where Hernando residents will see cutbacks is in the parks. If commissioners approve the proposals on the table, director Ron Pianta's Land Services Division will close parks and reduce maintenance at others.

Pianta said that the analysis was a difficult one. Small parks with few amenities don't cost much to run. Larger parks and parks with athletic fields cost more, but are also used more.

Under the proposal, the gate would be locked at Pioneer Park in Spring Hill, also known as Stewy's Skate Park. Much of Linda Pedersen Park, north of Hernando Beach, would close except for special events. Athletic fields at Ernie Wever Youth Park, north of Brooksville, would no longer be used; Hill 'n Dale Community Park would close, and the county would sell the adjacent undeveloped 5 acres.

Also on the chopping block are Istachatta, Nobleton and Lake Townsen Regional parks. Playground equipment at Istachatta would have to be removed, Pianta said.

The county is also considering charging a small fee for parking at the Suncoast Trail trailhead to maintain the restroom facilities there. Other counties already do.

Closing parks also has other impacts. As Pianta pointed out, the county will be out of compliance with the requirements of its own comprehensive plan by not providing enough parks. There are certain obligations to which the county has committed that might also be jeopardized by closing some parks.

In addition, there is a potential of vandalism, and there would be a cost for securing and someday reopening parks. Parks not on the list to be closed would see a reduction in their maintenance. Some league play would also have to be rescheduled.

Since 2008, the parks maintenance budget has seen a reduction in its support from the general fund from $2.99 million to a proposed $1.25 million for 2011-12; the number of employees has dropped from 37 to about 22.

Facing such drastic cuts, Commissioner John Druzbick said it was time for serious discussions with school officials about sharing facilities.

Pianta agreed.

In recreation services during that same period, support from the general fund has been trimmed from $618,935 to a proposed $15,474. Full-time equivalent employees have dropped from about 23 to four.

With a reduction from five to four employees for the new budget year, Pianta anticipates reducing the remaining recreation programs, reducing coordination with tourism and reassigning tasks to remaining personnel.

In the planning area, which is also Pianta's responsibility, further cutting of staff will mean no receptionist for customer service requests and that phone calls will be handled by an automated attendant.

Existing staffers will take on more responsibilities, and some tasks may not get done.

The Little Rock Cannery, which has been on life support for the past two budget years and has been saved only because an anonymous donor, is again slated for closure. Users of the cannery even successfully urged the commission to raise the annual fee there, but community development director Jean Rags told commissioners the facility will close under her proposal.

She added that the cannery operation in Citrus County, which is fee-based and just up the road, is still open for those who want to take advantage of that service.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said that he wants the county to keep its options open in case someone comes forward with a plan to keep the cannery open. In the past, supporters have promised to find a way, but Rags pointed out that they still haven't found a solution after two years.

With the staffing cuts planned for the Cooperative Extension Service, Rags said there will be a significant reduction in the Master Gardener program, which provides landscaping and planting information for county residents.

The cuts will also mean significant delays in processing state-mandated fertilizer certifications and pesticide examinations. In addition, family consumer science programs and 4-H programs will get less support, Rags said.

Cuts in the library budget will mean that libraries won't be able to buy as many new materials, and there likely will be increased delays in service. There will also be more limited access to the public computers at libraries, and some planned maintenance on the buildings will be deferred.

Much of the cost of libraries has been transferred to state library grant funds. Those will last about two more years, Rags said.

"After that,'' she said, "it's anybody's guess.''

Druzbick voiced concern that avoiding some work on the library buildings might cost much more in the long run.

Mental health programs, emergency prescription assistance, the self-sufficiency program and specialty health care access will all be reduced. Oversight and processing will also shrink for the indigent burial program, the Medicaid reimbursement program and the Health Care Responsibility Act.

Cuts in veterans services will mean that home visits will be limited and by appointment only, and visits to the Enrichment Center and skilled nursing facilities will be by appointment only. There will also be more wait time for appointments, and only limited community outreach and education will be possible, Rags told commissioners.

Fans of Hernando County Government Broadcasting will get less far less content. Depending on whether commissioners eliminate or simply reduce hours for the video assistant, the government meetings broadcast will shrink to primarily on-site meetings, plus Brooksville City Council, Spring Hill Fire Rescue and water awareness shows.

There will be more repetition of programming and possibly blackouts.

For administrative services — including management and budget, human resources, purchasing and technology services — cuts will mean that employees take on new responsibilities, there will be a longer wait time for services and training opportunities will shrink.

There will also be longer wait times for residents seeking services from code enforcement and animal services. In addition, with the elimination of supervisors, workers will have to be more independent, explained Mike Nickerson, the county's public safety director.

Visitors to public buildings might also notice a reduced standard of maintenance and cleaning.

With the proposed cuts, each maintenance technician will be responsible for nearly 50,000 square feet, a 15 percent increase over this year.

The increase is even more dramatic for custodians, who would be responsible for 31,693 square feet each, a 19 percent increase above this year.

Those increases would mean fewer inspections of major building systems, less routine maintenance, a slower response when problems arise and a scaled-back cleaning schedule.

Environmental services director Joe Stapf took a different approach when he presented commissioners the mosquito control budget. After deep cuts in the department last year and a major outbreak of mosquitoes last month, Stapf said the county must fund mosquito control adequately or simply end the program.

"It doesn't make any sense to do half a program,'' Stapf said.

He proposed a new 10th-of-a-mill tax for mosquito control, and noted that for the average homeowner it would amount to the cost of buying two cans of bug repellent. Hamilton suggested that, to minimize the impact of a tax increase, the commission could consider not funding the sensitive lands fund while the mosquito control tax was being levied.

The commission has not yet acted on that idea.

Commissioners will begin talking in detail about the proposed cuts at their meeting May 24. Public hearings and final decisions on the budget will come in September, before the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year on Oct. 1.

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

Hernando parks, libraries, and social and veterans services face steep budget cutbacks 05/14/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 14, 2011 1:22pm]

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