BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission got a balanced budget on Tuesday as required by law, but few of the critical questions — including what will be cut and where new revenue will come from — were answered.
In order to balance the $311 million proposed budget, county staff included a 6 percent increase in the property tax rate, an idea two commissioners immediately indicated they didn't want to support. Two others said any increase would be a last resort.
Because of falling property values, the proposed rate increase would still mean 70 percent of homeowners with the homestead exemption would see a decrease in their tax bill to support county government, according to George Zoettlein, the county's budget director.
Commissioner Jim Adkins said he would not support a tax rate increase, and Commissioner Dave Russell said he thought the current rate compared to the past tax rate tracked almost exactly the county's growth and the Consumer Price Index and that the county was where it needed to be.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who had said earlier that all options had to remain open before the commission considered a tax rate increase, noted that he felt like such comments from his colleagues were indications of important political cards being revealed at the table.
Commission Chairman John Druzbick said he would be the wild card, and he wanted cuts and other ideas explored so there would be no need for a tax increase or very little increase.
Commissioner Rose Rocco gave no indication of which way she was leaning.
Commissioners will have two weeks before setting a tentative tax rate, and they requested more information on a variety of cost-cutting and revenue-raising ideas.
They set the first of two required budget hearings for 5:01 p.m. Sept. 14.
Commissioners also heard about some of the hundreds of suggestions submitted primarily by county employees on how to offset the $10.3 million general fund revenue shortfall. The general fund for the 2010-11 budget is proposed to be $92 million.
Stabins had sent a general e-mail to county employees late last month seeking their ideas and he got an overwhelming response. The suggestions ranged from having county employees mix their own window-washing solution using ammonia to firing County Administrator David Hamilton.
After Stabins gave his report, Hamilton asked the commissioners to think of which, if any, of the suggestions they would like staff to research.
Later in the meeting, human resources director Cheryl Marsden provided some details on the impact of several of the suggestions.
A new round of furloughs in the new budget year or possibly cutting back on the number of paid holidays would require negotiations with the union, Marsden said.
No decisions were made on those topics or changing the county employees' health insurance, which Marsden said could see a 9 percent rise in the coming year. Currently, the county pays the full premium for single-person coverage for the employees.
Commissioners said it was too late in the year to consider switching insurance and suggested that staff look into the issue earlier next year.
Stabins also reported on his recent visit to the county's 25 parks to examine what might be done to increase revenue from users. The county has already agreed to put pay stations in at Roger's Park and Pine Island. Stabins suggested voluntary fee payments for use of other parks and boat ramps.
Commissioners were also interested in several statistics demonstrated by Zoettlein in his budget presentation, including information that from 2007 through the proposed 2011 budget, the county's budget reductions have amounted to $14.6 million and there have been only $1 million in reductions from the constitutional officers during the same period.
Stabins also questioned why the budget proposal showed spending proposed by the sheriff for operating the jail about $500,000 over what the county paid the private jail provider this year. The sheriff, he pointed out, had agreed to run the jail for the same amount as was paid to the private firm.
Hamilton agreed that the commissioners needed an answer on that difference. He promised a written answer from the budget office and he said he thought the sheriff might want to do the same.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.