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In new county budget process, information scarce as deadlines near

BROOKSVILLE — When Teamsters business agent John Sholtes opened negotiations with Hernando County government earlier this month, he did not bring a specific pay raise proposal to the table.

Instead, he told administrators that he was "extremely interested in hearing the county's current fiscal condition'' so he could prepare a proposal.

By the time the session ended, Sholtes had no more budgetary details than when he started.

Russ Wetherington, the chief negotiator for the county administration, explained that no information about the county's tentative 2013-14 spending plan will be shared until after July 15, the deadline for the staff to complete a tentative balanced budget.

In fact, the very first time the County Commission is scheduled to meet to discuss next year's budget is July 23. And because of an early August deadline, that is also the meeting during which the commission must set the tentative property tax rate.

That's a big change from the way the budget has been put together in recent years.

As the county has grappled with falling tax revenues and the need to cut county expenses over the last half-dozen years, regular budget discussions would take place during commission meetings starting early each calendar year.

George Zoettlein, assistant county administrator for budget and community services, would bring regular updates to the board. Over several months, the predicted funding shortfall would rise and fall as information changed.

At many of the budget updates, commissioners would listen to comments from taxpayers — those who wanted the commission to protect their favorite county services and those who wanted taxes and services cut.

County officials say one reason for the change in the process this year is because the constantly fluctuating numbers and monthslong discussion only served to confuse taxpayers and deepen the morale of county employees.

"That was insane,'' County Administrator Len Sossamon said. "I am not going to do things that way.''

With the support of County Commission Chairman Dave Russell, Sossamon established a protocol that limited discussion of budget information until the final critical pieces of information became available.

One of those was the budget requests from the county's five constitutional officers. Those were submitted to the county a month ago. The final piece of the puzzle was the final property valuation, certified by Property Appraiser John Emerson, which was released Friday. Tax rates are applied to property values to determine tax bills — and how much revenue will be coming to the county and other governmental bodies.

Prior to an overall increase in money requested by the constitutional officers, the county already was looking at a deficit of $7 million for 2013-14. But Zoettlein said last week that the number has changed for a variety of reasons.

In keeping with the new budget protocol, Zoettlein wouldn't even hint whether the projected deficit has grown or shrunk.

Even though residents have not been commenting much on budget issues at commission meetings, Sossamon said the budget he presents to the commission will reflect the public's thoughts and priorities.

He points to the town hall meetings he held several months ago in several locations across the county. He also said he has taken into account the results of a resident survey he conducted. The survey indicated that a majority of Hernando residents are willing to pay a little more in taxes to keep county services from deteriorating.

The survey has been blasted by some residents who support cutting taxes, but Sossamon dismissed that criticism.

"If someone asks you to do something and you do it and you get different results than they were expecting,'' that doesn't invalidate the results, he said.

Residents aren't the only ones questioning the results.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he is "diametrically opposed'' to the conclusions Sossamon has drawn from the town hall meetings and the survey.

Nicholson said the small number of people responding to the survey and attending the meetings do not reflect the thoughts of the "silent majority.''

"I don't want an increase in taxes,'' he said. "It looks to me that staff is pushing for a tax increase.''

Still, Nicholson said he is torn over the choices he will have to make.

"We've cut our staff in half, so, really, where else are you going to cut?'' he said.

He said he also wasn't aware that the first public discussion of the budget will be the same day the commission must set a tentative property tax rate. Whatever rate commissioners set will be the highest rate they can levy, though they could still lower it prior to the final public hearing on the budget in late September.

"I don't feel comfortable,'' Nicholson said. "I want input from the public, and I don't want to make any decision until I've heard input from the public.''

Commissioner Jim Adkins agreed.

"There could still be more discussion,'' he said. "We need more public comment.''

On the other hand, Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he doesn't mind waiting until the county has firm numbers before hearing public comment.

Dukes said he didn't mind the new process, and if it works, he supports it. The commission can always take another direction next year if they don't like the way this year's process unfolds, he said.

Commissioner Diane Rowden said she too liked the new budget process and noted that turmoil sometimes has been stirred up during the budget discussions because "you get people up there who are not quite accurate.''

Russell said he agreed with the process that Sossamon is following.

"In the past, there has been quite a bit of turmoil," he said, "and Len has tried to diffuse some of that.''

For taxpayers who have been paying attention, Russell said, a deficit between $6 million and $8 million should not come as a surprise. The county is having to deal with new state mandates and less state money to run libraries; it is still losing tax revenue because of falling property values and has no more available reserves to cushion the blow.

Once the commission sets a tentative tax rate July 23, the real work of the board will begin, Russell said.

"Now it's a matter of getting down to the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts,'' he said.

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

In new county budget process, information scarce as deadlines near 06/29/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 7:30pm]
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