BROOKSVILLE — When the Hernando County Commission ordered another $554,000 cut from the county's 2013-14 spending plan after last week's initial public hearing, county and sheriff's finance staffers were facing some tough decisions.
Not for long.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis sent a letter to commissioners Thursday telling them he would be able to return another $700,000 in unspent money to the county's general fund when the 2012-13 fiscal year ends in two weeks.
That is enough to cover the budget and tax rate reduction requested by the commission, without requiring additional budget cuts.
And there will be enough left over to give Nienhuis back $100,000 to keep his cold case unit operating for another year.
"The potential for solving any one of these heinous crimes is hard to place a value on for the victims and their family, not to mention the other county residents, and I cannot think of a better use for ... these surplus funds,'' Nienhuis wrote.
The sheriff's memo also notes that he was able to save another $50,000 by shopping around for cheaper auto insurance.
"It's certainly good news,'' commission Chairman Dave Russell said of the sheriff's efforts. "It's always good to see the sheriff is fiscally responsible. Obviously he's made his budget work and is able to return money to the county.''
Russell had pushed for the additional cuts in the 2013-14 budget during last week's public hearing.
He said he hasn't had a chance to delve into the details of the latest developments and will be meeting this week with George Zoettlein, the assistant county administrator for budget and community services, to review them.
"I just want to make sure that our budget is sustainable and that we're not allowing use of one-time revenues,'' Russell said.
In the last several weeks, as Zoettlein has been in close contact with the sheriff's finance staff, he said they reiterated that they were not sure whether they were going to be able to return the extra money — not until closer to the end of the fiscal year.
Once he got the information about the returning funds, he calculated how much he would have available after accounting for the commission's request for more cuts, the $100,000 for the cold case unit and money that must be placed in the budget reserves to meet the county's reserve policy.
Approximately $87,000 will be left over after that, and Zoettlein said those funds likely will go into the county building department's unsafe building fund, which is used to pay for demolition projects.
In addition to the $700,000, Nienhuis is returning another $470,000 in revenue from various sources that he is required to give back to the county, and those funds already had been built into the budget as revenue.
Already built into the sheriff's 2013-14 budget is $700,000 for pay raises. Instead of an across-the-board raise, Nienhuis plans a tiered approach to reward employees based on their experience and time on the job, with increases ranging from 2 percent to 6 percent.
The county also had built 3 percent pay raises into its original budget proposal for employees under the commission's control. But more recently, the spending plan has been reduced, and negotiations with the Teamsters union have begun, so county officials cannot talk about any potential pay raises.
The money being returned by the sheriff is the second piece of good budget news the county has received in recent weeks. The county also got word earlier this month that it would receive an unexpected windfall of $1.3 million in back taxes from the mining company Cemex, which settled a multiyear property value dispute with Property Appraiser John Emerson.
Still, with reserve funds having dried up after five difficult budget years, county taxpayers face a significant increase in the property tax rate for 2013-14.
With the changes last made by the board, the rate to support the general fund will rise 1 mill from 5.9169 to 6.9169, which is approximately 17 percent. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value.
The proposed general fund budget is $91 million, several hundred thousand dollars less than this year, and the total budget is $386 million.
The final hearing on the tax rate and spending plan is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.