New year, same budget issues in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — The process has become familiar in recent years.

Officials announce how many millions of dollars of revenue the county will lose during the coming year. Officials and commissioners wring their hands over the reasons for the shortfall and how the county is powerless to fix them. They trot out options for raising additional revenue and consider ways to make local government more efficient.

And so it went Tuesday as the Hernando County Commission kicked off a series of budget discussions for the 2012-13 fiscal year, led by chief procurement officer Russell Wetherington.

The session gave commissioners a chance to share with staffers their views on budget policy decisions. Property values are expected to fall another 5 percent this year, shearing another $2.5 million in revenue from the general fund and $3.5 million from all county funds.

Commissioners were clear in their direction to the staff.

For the fifth consecutive year, employees should expect no pay increases.

"We just don't have the money,'' Commissioner Dave Russell said.

The suggestion of an increase in the property tax rate to generate the same amount of revenue as this year drew no interest.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins said it would be "arrogant" to put the question of a sales tax increase to voters at a time when residents so distrust government.

The possibility of a gas tax increase got just as far.

"I think we can move on,'' Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said.

What did interest commissioners was continuing to work with the county's five constitutional officers to find ways to make employee benefits more uniform across all county offices. County firefighters and employees represented by the Teamsters recently turned down contract offers that asked them to accept lesser benefits than those provided by the constitutional offices.

Also, county budget manager George Zoettlein explained that a change in state rules will require that the supervisor of elections, sheriff and clerk of court report more details in the budgets they submit to commissioners for the coming year.

Another change gives the commission more leeway than it's had in the past to cut specific portions of the budgets for the elections supervisor and sheriff.

Commissioners said they were also interested in finding new ways to combine departments, and Commissioner John Druzbick outlined a variety of areas where that work is continuing, including information technology, finance and geographic information systems.

In addition, Druzbick said he wanted to see some improvements in efficiency in areas such as fleet operations and maintenance.

Steve Whitaker, assistant public works director, outlined ways the county has tried to cut fleet costs, including farming out to private concerns some of the light vehicle maintenance tasks.

Public safety director Mike Nickerson explained how town hall meetings are planned in the coming months to give business people and residents a say in how county fire service should be funded in the future.

Nickerson and other officials are continuing to merge Spring Hill Fire Rescue with the Hernando County Fire Rescue, each of which now has its own funding method. He said the future method might be to use a mixture of funding sources to pay for the service.

The most-discussed item Tuesday was the county's ongoing problem with sinkholes and its effect on tax revenue. Once sinkhole activity has been confirmed on a piece of property, its value is immediately cut in half for tax purposes.

Russell called the meteoric rise in sinkhole claims "both systemic and infectious'' and predicted it would bankrupt the county and turn people away from wanting to live in Hernando.

"We're becoming stigmatized,'' he said.

Some residents have criticized Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek for dropping the value of sinkhole homes so dramatically. But Mazourek explained that he must use figures from property sales to set assessments, and sinkhole homes sell for roughly 50 percent of their previous value, he said. The reductions will cost the county $1 million in tax revenue next year.

The commissioners, Mazourek and his chief deputy, John Emerson, spoke about the complexities of the issue and how state lawmakers need to find a solution.

The discussion ended with no clear resolution.

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

New year, same budget issues in Hernando 02/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 8:03pm]

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