BROOKSVILLE — A two-year project to streamline county government, raise efficiencies, trim staff and still provide services that residents expect is nearing the halfway point.
County officials have prepared a 2008-09 budget proposal, and it will get its first public airing during a hearing at 5 p.m. Thursday. A final hearing is slated for Sept. 25.
Driven by the public's strong support for the tax-revenue reducing Amendment 1, legislative action and declining property values, county officials have been faced with finding ways to provide what they must with less income from property taxes.
"Nobody said to me that they wanted us to do anything less. They asked that we do what we do for less,'' said County Administrator David Hamilton. "We can get our costs down, and we have.''
The exercise has meant the full gamut of cost cutting, from layoffs to not filling open positions, new fees, shorter hours and reductions in programs. Some recommendations have been accepted, while others have been adjusted to match what residents have said are their priorities.
The overall county spending plan commissioners will consider Thursday is nearly 8.9 percent below last year. The general fund spending plan, which is a portion of that, is down by 5.2 percent.
The basic countywide tax rate would remain the same as last year at 6.3431 mills. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a house appraised at $150,000, and eligible for the full $50,000 homestead exemption, the tax bill for county services would be $634.31.
Although the tax rate is unchanged, because the homestead exemption was doubled for many under Amendment 1, the same homeowner would have paid $158.58 more on last year's county tax bill if the home were appraised for the same amount.
County officials have tried to blunt the impact of the cost cutting, and Hamilton said he was comfortable that needs will be met, even as some activities — including hours at the county's libraries — are reduced.
"Our core services are remaining the same, in my estimation,'' Hamilton said.
He said he was sensitive to the fact that, because of the economic downturn, some residents "are depending on government more.''
That is why officials pressed hard to find a way to save the county's public transit system, known as THE Bus. While Hamilton identified early on that he needed to trim the $600,000-plus annual subsidy for the transit system by $200,000, county staffers still found a way to keep from losing the service or limiting days or hours of the service.
The solution was to raise bus fares, switch maintenance and fueling from the operator to the county, cut the fee to the operator, and not start new, planned service enhancements.
A controversial plan to charge youth and adult sports league members $20 a year for grounds maintenance in county parks generated concerns from league officials who didn't want to see any children turned away from organized sports because of the cost.
The alternative: lay off four employees in the Parks and Recreation Department.
A survey of the leagues turned up mixed results, and in a meeting slated for Wednesday, county commissioners will consider approving the fees, which have been recommended by Pat Fagan, director for the county's parks and facilities.
Fee increases for the use of other park facilities and for some programs are also recommended, and Fagan has assumed that the county can raise $15,000 in new revenue by allowing businesses to advertise in county parks.
Another proposed cut was originally approved by a divided commission, then reversed for another alternative. Code enforcement officials asked to cut spending by eliminating Saturday hours for the public at the Animal Services facility and ending the spay and neuter rebate program.
But after public complaints, commissioners agreed instead to cut a code enforcement officer, which will allow Animal Services to reopen the facility on Saturdays early next year and reinstate the spay and neuter rebate program. The targeted code enforcement officer was set for cross-training to fill an opening at the shelter, so no one actually lost a job.
The county also was able to cut from the jail budget because a continuing cost increase that had been seen in the past was not repeated in recent months.
Another $72,000 in savings, including the cost of benefits, is anticipated because Hamilton is proposing that employees who make more than $65,000 a year get no raises during the coming year. Other employees, except for those represented by unions, will receive a 2 percent pay adjustment, if approved by the commission Sept. 16.
In a memo Hamilton sent out on Friday, he stated that, if all the elected constitutional officers would adopt the same plan, a total of $98,500 would be saved.
While the operational side of the budget has gotten most of the attention as cuts have been made, Hamilton is also focused on capital improvements.
He is proposing a more detailed, long-term plan for the county's capital needs, which include a new judicial center and improvements to County Line Road, which he said he sees as a transportation corridor with great potential for the county.
So far, Hamilton said he has not heard any indication that commissioners will see a repeat of last year's tumultuous budget hearings, which went on for hours and drew crowds so large that the second hearing had to be moved to Grace World Outreach Church.
Hamilton said he hoped that his community budget information sessions early in the summer had answered many of the questions that people might have had about the county's spending.
With closure on the 2008-09 budget looming later this month, Hamilton said last week that there is still a lot of work to be done in Year 2 of the county's restructuring.
He has proposed a voluntary early retirement plan for top county officials, the details of which are still not finalized. That will play into the next large step of the plan — to cut the number of departments in the county in half, to about 10 to 12.
The draft of that plan is expected to be presented to county commissioners next month. Hamilton's ultimate plan is to centralize many functions that various arms of government duplicate, such as human resources services and information technology.
Because of that, Hamilton has been working with the county's constitutional offices, such as Sheriff Richard Nugent and Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, to find ways to combine functions while still respecting each officer's specific statutory responsibilities.
"The taxpayers are telling us to get the price of this operation better,'' Hamilton said. "There's less money. There needs to be more cooperation. How do we make that happen?''
His conversations with the constitutional officers thus far have been "cordial,'' he said, but he also admitted that there has been some tension, and he predicted more in the future as changes and sharing are discussed.
Hamilton said everyone supports those ideas, "until we have to face them.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.