BROOKSVILLE — Emma Lee Brockington comes all the way from Zephyrhills to put up her produce at the Little Rock Cannery in north central Hernando County.
On Tuesday, she and more than a dozen kindred spirits pleaded with county leaders to preserve the cannery in the face of budget cuts.
"I could not survive without the cannery,'' she told the county's Budget and Finance Committee. "My husband's a diabetic. I'm a diabetic.''
The speakers ranged from those who have used the facility since it opened in 1975 and others who have raised generations of their families canning vegetables, sauces and preserves to those who have been forced by tough economic times to feed families from their own gardens.
"That is how we raise the family,'' said Cindy Boyer, a mother of eight and grandmother of two. "I don't know what we would do without the cannery.''
The committee will recommend to the County Commission that county agricultural extension agent Stacy Strickland and county staff find a way to lessen the $49,000 impact of the facility on the budget and "make darn sure that we keep the cannery open,'' in the words of Commissioner Jeff Stabins.
"People are getting back to basics and this is basic,'' said Commissioner Rose Rocco, chair of the budget committee. She said the county could also consider raising the fee for the cannery, which is $10 per family per year.
The cannery concerns mirrored several budget-cutting issues discussed Tuesday by the committee, which can suggest actions but can't settle any of the county's budget woes, such as an $11 million revenue shortage.
The committee recommended that the commission consider furloughs to cut down on payroll costs. Staff estimated that 14 furlough days a year for employees working for the county departments would save about $545,000.
Stabins asked if the furloughs could be tied to higher-salaried workers rather than the lower-paid staff, or whether they could be geared to impact hourly help less than salaried staff.
Committee member Greg Myers didn't want to stop at considering only furloughs. He asked staff for information about savings if county facilities were to close one weekday and have employees work a 32-hour week.
Staff estimate of the payroll cut would be a $2.4 million savings. Myers wondered how many other costs would be saved such as facility use and utilities. But Stabins balked at pushing for such a "draconian step.''
At Myers' urging, Stabins agreed to ask the staff to bring back more details of both the 32-hour work week and a 37 1/2 work week like the one adopted by the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Deputy county administrator Larry Jennings warned that those changes will need to be negotiated with the Teamsters union, which represents county workers.
The committee recommendation to not allow employees to cash in 80 percent of their unused leave beginning in 2010 was not subject to negotiations, Jennings said.
The group also heard about the budgets of Community Relations, Parks and Recreation, Facilities Maintenance and the County Jail.
The recommendations included changes in park fees, seeking more cooperation from sports leagues to maintain fields, and continued efforts to reduce costs for Parks and Recreation.
Gregg Sutton, the assistant county engineer who oversees facilities maintenance, agreed that the department will be able to cut as much as other departments.
The committee recommended that the county continue to push to cut the number of Hernando inmates at the county jail, which has driven up the cost of the jail contract with Corrections Corporation of America.
The county hopes to soon begin using ankle bracelets to keep nonviolent inmates out of the jail. Jim Gantt, the county's purchasing director, said that could save the county another $200,000 to $300,000 per year.
Stabins asked how much in additional cuts county departments will be asked to endure. The latest request was $1.7 million.
Jennings said more cuts depend on how much constitutional officers are willing to trim their budgets. With Sheriff Richard Nugent turning in a budget equal to last year but not yet addressing $4.2 million in cuts requested by county administration, the county is a long way from balancing its spending plan for 2010.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.