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Hernando services saved from chopping block

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's public transit system may be saved for now, and service cuts at Animal Services including shutting the shelter on Saturdays are back for discussion.

Hernando County Commissioners got their first shot Tuesday to talk in detail about some of the proposed spending cuts for the 2009 county budget. It was clear the trims are going to be painful.

Budget reductions are necessary due to falling tax revenues mandated by the state Legislature and the voters. The spending plan brought forward by the county's Office of Management and Budget showed a total budget of $384.5-million compared to last year's $421.9-million.

The general fund alone accounts for $119.1-million compared to last year's $125.5-million.

Since county officials first brought budget figures to the board earlier this year, they have talked about long-term plans to make government more efficient, streamlining into fewer departments, cutting back costs for travel, training and overtime and offering an early retirement package for the county's managers.

Tuesday's session focused on more of the nuts-and-bolts cuts by departments with a heavy focus on the service cuts to the public that have gotten the most attention.

The county administrator's proposed budget trimmed $200,000 out of the county's subsidy for the public transit system known as THE Bus. On Tuesday, county staff proposed fee increases, cuts in the amount paid the bus operator, shifting maintenance and fueling responsibilities to the county from the operator and not beginning a new initiative previously planned.

All totaled, those changes would mean no service would be cut but more than $200,000 could be saved, planning director Ron Pianta explained.

Under the proposed new fee schedule, which will still need a formal board approval, the cost of a bus ride would go from $1 to $1.25 and then to $1.50 in nine months. A month-long pass would increase from $15 to $25 and transfers, which were free, would cost 50 cents.

The commission's decision last week to close the Animal Services facility to the public on Saturdays generated some public complaints, commissioners said. Commissioner Jeff Stabins suggested returning the funds to Animal Services both to open again on Saturdays and to save the county's spay and neuter rebate program.

He suggested finding money by getting rid of one code enforcement officer and focusing that department more on the "egregious'' violations of code, not much smaller issues.

County staff agreed to discuss the ideas further and bring back another proposal to the commission.

Sheriff Richard Nugent also made his budget presentation to the commission. Using statistics, he demonstrated his office's continuing efforts to decrease response times and toe the line on cost increases while crime rates and county population and commercial development increase.

He explained that, to meet the county's request for a flat budget, he was able to make several additional cuts including cutting a community relations specialist, a floating school resource officer and the sergeant for school resource officers.

Nugent said he was still $178,000 above where he needs to be but County Administrator David Hamilton said additional meetings with the sheriff and his staff are planned.

County staff also will bring back details on park fee increases and the proposed priority list for the county's special program to treat lime rock roads.

George Zoettlein, director of the budget office, reminded commissioners that the cuts this year will take care of only half of the county's revenue reduction issue. The other half will take place in the spending plan, which will be crafted next year for 2010.

"There is still more work to be done,'' he said.

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

>>fast facts

Millage rate remains unchanged

The commission gave tentative approval for a tax rate that is unchanged from this year's rate of 5.4394 mills to support the general fund. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a house valued at $125,000 with the $25,000 homestead exemption, that means the county tax to support the general fund would remain at $543.94.

Two public hearings will take place in September before that tax rate and other rates to support transportation, sensitive lands preservation, the health unit and emergency services can be finalized. No increase over last year is proposed for those rates either.

The first public hearing on the county budget is slated for 5:01 p.m. on Sept. 11.

Hernando services saved from chopping block 07/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 3:29pm]
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