BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis has a plan to help plug the county's 2012-13 general fund budget deficit. Now it will be up to the County Commission to decide if it's enough.
Nienhuis on Friday announced his intention to return $1.6 million to the general fund. The announcement came hours after his staffers met with county budget manager George Zoettlein.
"The bottom line is (Zoettlein) has told us today he's happy with those numbers, and if he's happy, I would assume the commission will be," Nienhuis said.
The plan does not include any staff cuts.
The bulk of the money is $870,000 the sheriff will return in unspent funds from the current budget year. That's nearly three times the amount Nienhuis had earlier estimated he would be able to give back.
The figure also includes $300,000 Nienhuis will save the general fund by taking over supervision of Animal Services officers, a commitment he made weeks ago.
The Sheriff's Office will also turn over $120,000 in federal reimbursement dollars for expenses associated with Tropical Storm Debby and for providing mutual aid at the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa.
The unspent dollars that Nienhuis is returning to the county is money that he would have had to return anyway, Zoettlein said. The sheriff is required by law to turn over leftover money at the end of the fiscal year.
Zoettlein said the sheriff met the goal set by the commission if commissioners approve using $300,000 in judicial improvement reserve funds to offset a portion of what Nienhuis was asked to provide.
The sheriff's announcement came days after he met with commissioners individually to talk about his budget. The message he heard from the commissioners: There is no wiggle room.
Until Friday, Nienhuis contends, there was some confusion about how much he actually had to cut.
In June, Nienhuis submitted a 2012-13 budget of $38,277,524, the exact figure as last year.
In late July and early August, Zoettlein was getting wave after wave of bad news about tax revenues, even as he was trying to prepare the 2012-13 spending plan.
Ultimately, with property value adjustments made because of a challenge by the mining company Cemex, the county was going to bring even less money in property taxes than calculated earlier in the summer.
Commissioners divided up the pain, deciding to cut board department budgets by $1.5 million — a goal that has not yet been accomplished. They also sought small cuts from the supervisor of elections and the clerk of circuit court.
The sheriff was asked by commissioners to trim an additional $1.3 million from his budget.
Nienhuis contends that much of the savings he had committed to by then should be counted toward that amount.
"I think that was some miscommunication, and things were happening so fast," he said Friday.
Using the judicial reserve money to bolster the budget bothers at least one commissioner, John Druzbick.
Taking one-time money to pay for recurring expenses, Druzbick said, is something the commission has vowed not to do. Even though he had been willing to take money from the county's judicial fund to pay the one-time expense of settling challenged Medicaid bills, he said he does not support this move.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he was grateful that the sheriff found a way to meet the commission's spending target.
"I commend the sheriff and his staff for stepping up and making it work,'' Russell said. "You know these things always come down to the wire. I had faith we were going to get there.''
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.