Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

In Brooksville, one council member proposes new ideas to deal with budget issues

BROOKSVILLE — Through the eyes of interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner, the city of Brooksville is grappling with making ends meet. For residents, that could mean higher taxes, fees and costs during the coming fiscal year.

For one member of the City Council, it means maybe it's time to look at the budget in a different way.

Council member Natalie Kahler said this week she believes the city no longer can afford the services of the Hogan Law Firm, the current salary and benefits package for police Chief George Turner and the all-paid staff at the Brooksville Fire Department.

Participating in Monday's meeting by telephone, Kahler presented a detailed plan to address those and other issues — a plan that could save $400,000 without laying off any staffers or cutting any services.

Her presentation — including a packet of documents, charts and other materials given to each council member — provided materials showing where she believes costs are not affordable. She provided a quick overview to the council and gave additional details to the Tampa Bay Times.

While Kahler appreciates all those who have worked with and for the city, she said something has to change to provide the services city residents need while not driving them away with the cost.

With a base annual salary of $95,850, Turner has a higher base than the chiefs in Cape Coral, Daytona Beach, Tallahassee, Pensacola and Gainesville, according to Kahler's research. But she is even more concerned about his benefits package, which includes three separate retirement accounts, including a private pension fund established by the city and payments in lieu of health insurance contributions.

In total, Turner's salary and benefits package is $159,220.83 a year. That compares to the city manager's salary and benefits, which total $136,527.04.

"Not that he's not doing a good job. But, again, we can't afford him,'' Kahler said.

She hopes that requesting some return on the retirement funds, which she said were approved by former City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha but not the City Council, might reduce the tax burden on Brooksville residents.

Her concerns about the city's Fire Department are of a different nature. An analysis of calls done by the department shows that about 1 percent of its calls were for fires last year. Of 2,414 calls, there were 12 building fires, four vehicle fires and 13 grass fires.

The remaining calls were for assistance or medical services. Since Brooksville's crews have only basic life support capability, they often must wait for county fire-rescue crews to provide the advanced life support services needed by 911 callers.

"Are we a fire agency or an emergency services agency?'' Kahler said. "We need to transition into a combination fire department.''

Kahler proposes bringing advanced life support paramedics into the agency and having fire crews that consist of existing staffers, new paramedics and volunteers to fill openings as positions become available. High turnover in the department, evidenced by materials Kahler provided to council members, means that no one would have to be let go to create the new structure.

Early budget documents project legal fees for 2017-18 at $200,000, with most of that going to the attorneys at the Hogan Law Firm.

"Our legal expenses for a city of 8,000 are very, very high,'' Kahler said.

Her thought is that the council could retain its own staff attorney for half of that total and have specialty attorneys when needed.

Finding a way to lower legal costs was also an issue raised by council member Joe Bernardini. He said the retainer for the legal staff was too high and should be analyzed "to relieve some burden on taxpayers.''

Kahler made one other pitch to save money. She suggested that the city go back to filling some positions through a program that provides senior volunteers who are looking to update skills and their resumes. There are a couple of city positions open for which that might work, including an assistant to the city manager, she noted.

That, Kahler said, is the only one of her proposals that she expects will not be controversial.

Budget discussions continue through September, when the council will set its final tax rate and approve the budget for the year that begins Oct. 1.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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