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New Hernando Budget and Finance Committee faces criticism, red ink

From left, assistant county administrator Larry Jennings and citizen members Greg Myers and Anna Liisa Covell listen to a budget presentation  Tuesday as a new watchdog panel takes up its task.

RON THOMPSON | Times

From left, assistant county administrator Larry Jennings and citizen members Greg Myers and Anna Liisa Covell listen to a budget presentation Tuesday as a new watchdog panel takes up its task.

BROOKSVILLE — The first meeting of a new team hoping to navigate Hernando County through a sea of red ink began Tuesday with tea bags, veered into a discussion of prostitutes, and featured a citizen's assessment that the effort is a waste of time and electricity.

Clearly, the members of the fledgling Budget and Finance Committee have their work cut out for them.

Created by the County Commission at the urging of County Administrator David Hamilton, the group is to hash out spending issues in detail before the topics move on to the full board of commissioners.

These days, that means talking about how to do more — or at least the same — with less money.

Officials are trying to cut $3.1 million from the current budget, explained budget director George Zoettlein. Departments and constitutional officers are being asked to cut spending, the money intended for engineering will be cut as projects stall, renovations at county Animal Services will be trimmed and reserves will be reduced to make up the difference, he said.

The 2010 budget will face another $10 million revenue shortfall, Zoettlein said. Next year, he said, "is a lot worse.''

Property values are expected to plummet 6 percent more, and cash carried forward into this year's general fund has been removed from the mix and set aside for the county's share of building a new judicial center, making the bottom line appear even weaker.

Before the group even embarked on the six-hour session, local activist Janey Baldwin set the tone by depositing tea bags onto the spot before each committee member. The bags, she said, represented her own antispending tea party.

At each chance for public comment, she criticized the endeavor as wasteful and pointless. Everything the staff presented during the session, Baldwin complained, will be repeated to the full commission, she argued, leaving these meetings a waste of time and electricity.

The committee — Commissioners Rose Rocco and Jeff Stabins and citizen members Anna Liisa Covell, John Scharch and Greg Myers — forged ahead, anyway.

County purchasing director Jim Gantt brought out a list of current county projects, and the questioning began in earnest.

Stabins wanted more details on costs of planned renovations at Animal Services.

Covell questioned spending a half-million dollars to renovate the Brooksville Fire Station, which city fire officials will soon share with Hernando County Fire Rescue.

As for a restroom project at Russell Street Park, Covell complained that prostitutes and drug dealers use the area. Completing the facilities before the planned trail is complete will create a security problem. Public works director Charles Mixson assured her that the trail and the restrooms would likely be done at the same time.

The committee agreed to recommend most of the projects on the list to commissioners.

The group debated the criteria the county uses to replace its vehicle fleet but sent along most of the list of purchases to the commission. The members said they would check around to see if there are better deals to be found than the state-bid prices.

Committee members' views were mixed on whether the county should continue reimbursing employees for tuition for continuing education. Human resources director Cheryl Marsden will bring them more details later.

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

New Hernando Budget and Finance Committee faces criticism, red ink 03/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 7:44pm]
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