Staff, transit and library cuts loom as Hernando faces $8.3M budget shortfall

Mollie Lauver, right, of Spring Hill follows THE Bus driver Ruben Rivera onto the Blue loop bus in Spring Hill. Budget shortfalls could ground the service.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Mollie Lauver, right, of Spring Hill follows THE Bus driver Ruben Rivera onto the Blue loop bus in Spring Hill. Budget shortfalls could ground the service.

BROOKSVILLE — A few days ago, county parks director Pat Fagan was questioned by a citizen who wondered why not all the county parks were still flying flags.

The answer was simple: The $3,000 to $4,000 annual flag expenditure was under scrutiny, as is every aspect of county spending. Flags were not going up at every park.

Fagan soon ordered that the flags fly again, saying he didn't intend to let Hernando County be seen in a bad light.

But given the amount Fagan and other county officials are being asked to hack from next year's budget, there will be many such choices that bring pain and public outcry.

As the county tries to find another $8.3 million to fill the gap between expected revenues and spending, and on the heels of several years of retreating on spending, the outlook is for more misery.

Parks may close. THE Bus may be parked for good. Libraries could see spending on new books and maintenance suspended. Another 40-50 county employees could lose their jobs.

Services that barely survived the long knives last year — including the Little Rock Cannery, the county-funded position for the Guardian Ad Litem program and funding for various social and mental health services — likely will be on the chopping block again.

A clearer picture of the budget situation is expected in the next several days when the county receives the latest report on just how far property values fell in 2009 and when constitutional officers submit their budgets.

Several weeks ago, George Zoettlein, the director of the office of management and budget, firmed up a list of where he could find $8.3 million.

Fagan may be told to trim $1 million, nearly half his operating costs, from the parks budget. That has him "looking at all options,'' including closing some parks. Athletic leagues that use certain parks may be asked to take over some portion of their operation.

To make those decisions, Fagan said he has been analyzing how much each park costs to run and which facilities are used by which groups.

"One million dollars is a lot of money,'' Fagan said, noting that 80 percent of his cost is personnel and he is not anxious to see park employees lose their jobs.

If parks shut down, the department could save both on people and on equipment to maintain them. If fees were put in place, the parks could raise some of their operational funds.

Libraries also must cut $1 million, but Zoettlein doesn't anticipate major cuts in services. Officials plan to pay for more operating expenses out of state library grants instead of the general fund. The library budget is roughly $3.3 million, $1.5 million of which is grant money.

"In an effort to keep all our branches open and keep staff in place, we will delay some maintenance projects, some maintenance services,'' said Jean Rags, director of health and human services.

That will also mean the newest best sellers won't be in every branch. New videos or audio materials may not be available. Lines to use computers and check out books will grow longer.

"We're trying to minimize the changes,'' Rags said. "It's important for us to do this to keep our branches open and be able to service our patrons.''

Another $500,000 may be trimmed from facilities maintenance.

Because the general fund budget is shrinking, and the required level of reserves shrinks with it, Zoettlein plans to use $1.1 million in reserves to offset lost revenues. The county is spending $3 million from the reserves this year.

Zoettlein also has suggested nearly $500,000 in cuts to mass transit. Of that, $350,000 would be funding for THE Bus, effectively killing the service because that money is needed to match the remaining operating costs of $1.7 million that comes through grants.

Another $140,000 is suggested to be cut from the para-transit, door-to-door transport system, money that is the county's match toward service. Whether that service could still operate or at what level if that cut is made is unclear, Zoettlein said.

The hope is that the county's constitutional officers, including the sheriff and the Clerk of the Circuit Court, will turn in budgets saving another $2.2 million in general fund monies.

Another $1 million that Zoettlein had budgeted for next year to make jail repairs can be put back because the County Commission has agreed to place $3 million in reserves this year into a special fund for the jail repairs.

Rags said the entire county leadership team has committed to help find the cuts needed to make up for the shortfall. In some departments that might mean services are lost. In others, levels of service will drop.

That will mean fewer employees to provide customer service. Zoettlein said that is inevitable, noting that he will lose a budget analyst from his already-depleted staff.

"There is nothing else left to cut. There's no capital to cut. We did that before,'' he said. "There is nothing left but people.''

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

Fast facts

Some suggested cuts

• Nearly $500,000 in cuts to mass transit. Of that, $350,000 would be funding for THE Bus, effectively killing the service because that money is needed to match the remaining operating cost of $1.7 million that comes through grants.

• Libraries and the parks department may have to cut $1 million each.

Staff, transit and library cuts loom as Hernando faces $8.3M budget shortfall 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:22pm]

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