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Kids and others urge Hernando commission not to close parks, drop services

At the County Commission meeting in Brooksville on Tuesday, Tevan Berry, 9, center, and his brother, Isaiah, 7, left, hold signs urging commissioners to keep Ernie Wever Youth Park open. In addition to Ernie Wever Youth Park, the county administration has also recommended closures of other parks.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

At the County Commission meeting in Brooksville on Tuesday, Tevan Berry, 9, center, and his brother, Isaiah, 7, left, hold signs urging commissioners to keep Ernie Wever Youth Park open. In addition to Ernie Wever Youth Park, the county administration has also recommended closures of other parks.

BROOKSVILLE — Almost like clockwork in recent years, as soon as the County Commission begins serious discussions of their next-year's spending plan, citizens concerned that their services and facilities are on the chopping block make their voices heard.

On Tuesday, it was the parents and children who rely on the athletic fields at Ernie Wever Youth Park who packed the commission meeting, begging the board to keep the park open.

Also arguing against cuts were supporters of the Little Rock Cannery, volunteers with the master gardener program and supporters of government broadcasting.

Several residents even asked for a tax increase so that their programs and parks would not be impacted, prompting County Commissioner Jeff Stabins to say, "I never thought I'd live long enough to see the silent majority show up and drown out the wackos.''

In the midst of the roughly 30 speakers, county Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek stepped up to echo the sentiment that the budget cutting needed to stop.

"This board has got to come up with some additional revenue,'' he said. "The bleeding has to stop.''

He suggested the county go with the rollback rate "to save these things.''

Mazourek was referring to the "rollback rate," which means the slightly higher tax rate that the county could charge next year to raise the same amount of property tax revenue as this year. With property values dropping, the tax revenue will continue to drop if the tax rate stays the same.

Stabins thanked Mazourek for being the first constitutional officer who would "speak out and say the right thing.''

Commissioner Dave Russell said the rollback would be a tax increase for an estimated 30 percent of the property owners.

"Don't try to paint this as something it's not,'' Russell said. "A rollback would require raising the millage rate.''

Commissioner Wayne Dukes urged the citizens concerned about their parks and programs to volunteer their time and effort to keep the status quo.

"We can make this work as a community,'' he said.

Ernie Wever Youth Park, used by many youth teams in multiple sports, is one of several set for closure or partial closure to save money. Children packed the audience waving signs that read "We (heart) love Ernie Wever" and "Save our Park."

Twelve-year-old Jake Whelan warned the commission that by closing parks, they were making the county a less attractive place to live. "Please don't close our park,'' he begged.

"There have to be other areas where things can be done so our park can stay open,'' said area resident Brandi Burns. "If you take this away from our children, they will have nothing.''

County officials had been warning of dire financial conditions for the 2011-12 budget year as property values have continued to fall and budget reserves to soften the blow have dried up. The county is facing a $6.7 million revenue shortfall, but officials also expect to have to refund another $1.3 million in taxes already collected because of adjustments made through the value adjustment board.

In addition, county leadership has asked the five elected constitutional officers to make a total of nearly $3 million in cuts to their budgets. The County Commission won't know how close they come until their budgets are turned in next week. If they don't meet that goal, county board departments may have to make even deeper cuts.

In addition to Ernie Wever Youth Park, the county administration has also recommended closure of Hill n' Dale Community Park, Nobleton, Istachatta and Townsen Lake regional parks and closure of much of Linda Pedersen Park for all but special events.

The budget-cutting proposal also includes elimination of 40 positions from the county board departments with 11 of those being positions that are currently filled.

Officials have described the impact of all those cuts, including scaling back government broadcasting, longer wait times for customers, less support for the master gardener program, slower response to complaints, more automated telephone answering service and skipping some maintenance and custodial services in county buildings.

Stabins pushed for county directors to name the individuals who face layoffs under the plan, and challenged County Administrator David Hamilton on why he and his leadership team didn't also consider new revenue rather than just cuts in services. Hamilton explained that the board has never been in favor of revenue increases, so the team didn't discuss them before presenting the proposed budget. Hamilton said that was a policy decision of the board.

Commissioner John Druzbick pushed the county to talk more about how to save significant money by changing employee benefits, specifically a cheaper health care plan and possibly more employee contribution to their health plan.

Commissioners decided they were not ready to make the budget changes recommended during Tuesday's session and opted to talk more about cuts and other budget issues during a workshop planned for 9 a.m. June 7.

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

Kids and others urge Hernando commission not to close parks, drop services 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 7:54pm]
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