Without help from reserves, budget-cutting could get ugly in Hernando County

BROOKSVILLE — Ask employees at the Hernando County Government Center about the impact of declining tax revenue, and the likely answer will include a heavy dose of anxiety.

County workers are switching offices to use space more efficiently. Employees unsure of their futures are signing up for early leave. Private companies are being given the chance to take over government functions.

Downsizing is in full swing.

Around the rest of the county, the impact of the budget cuts may not be so obvious — proof to some that the tales of government waste were true.

Some of the cuts over the past two years were cushioned by using reserves collected when the economy was better. Money has been shifted in some cases. A number of jobs have gone unfilled. Operational expenses have been trimmed.

But the days of relatively painless spending reductions are over, according to County Administrator David Hamilton.

If the past two years of scaling back did indeed slim down a bloated operation, the next round is going to slice into muscle and bone.

"We've held back from cutting things that bring out the crowds,'' Hamilton said last week. "But we're running out of these options.''

Even as the final scurry is on to finish the 2009-10 budget by the end of next month, Hamilton has been thinking about the future, which is expected to bring even worse financial news.

Tax revenue will fall even lower as property values continue to slide. By how much, "I just don't know yet,'' said Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek.

Faced with that uncertainty, Hamilton wants to lay it all on the table.

And the big question that needs to be answered, he says, is this: What services do residents want from county government, and what are they willing to pay for them?

Hamilton said the ultimate decisions will be up to county commissioners. But the county's leaders need to have that conversation — even if it means unpopular discussions about possible increases in taxes and fees, or revisiting the issue of a separate taxing unit for the sheriff.

"We have to have the honest debate about the price of government, given the times we are in,'' he said.

• • •

Soon after Hamilton came to Hernando County in March 2008, he was talking about plans to downsize county operations.

Well aware of the tumultuous outcry from residents demanding tax cuts during the 2007 budget season and seeing the economic free-fall under way, he was mentioning consolidation, early leave, cutting costs and making county government smaller and more efficient.

While talking about those goals, he was also putting out a series of fires. Personnel issues erupted in his first weeks on the job, adding to the public sentiment that county government was out of control and in need of a big change.

Hamilton jumped into the fray, firing some employees, disciplining and motivating others, sending a message that misbehavior would not be tolerated.

He made it clear there would be fewer top-paid workers running the operation. He emphasized that he would no longer put up with projects that were started but never finished — on what he called the "infinity plan.''

"There was a disconnect with the public between what we were doing for the price they were paying,'' Hamilton said.

Then he began the restructuring, cost-cutting and downsizing that the economic downturn was forcing on the county's operation.

Hamilton believes — or at least hopes — what has been done so far has restored some credibility to county government. Now it's time to find out what the community will support.

Next year, some tough choices must be made, he says.

• • •

"There is a point in time (in cutting the budget) when the vital services that the public expects'' will be at risk, Hamilton said. "I believe we're about at that point.''

So the question to the community could be whether it would be willing to pay a fee to use county parks, an idea shot down by sports leagues last year.

Should library services cut hours again after burning through grant money to help out in the short term?

How often should county parks and roadway rights of way be mowed and maintained?

Will the county cannery again risk closure if private funding cannot be found next year?

Should there be shorter hours for government offices? Furloughs for employees?

What would be lost by privatizing county recycling, courthouse security or government broadcasting?

All of those questions have been kicked around during the past few months of budget discussions, which have centered on making up a $10 million revenue shortfall in the general fund and a similar shortfall in the Utilities Department.

But one thing commissioners didn't talk about was increasing the property tax rate to a level known as the "rollback rate'' — a levy that, despite falling property values, would generate the same amount in revenue as the previous year.

In the general fund alone, that would have raised another $7.5 million this year.

Next year, Hamilton said, "the rollback needs a broader discussion.''

User fees should also be back on the table, he said.

So should the separate taxing unit to fund the operations of the sheriff.

The separate unit for law enforcement was discussed but shot down by the commission this year. Sheriff Richard Nugent has said he would be willing to take any criticism if such a unit is created and a tax increase is needed to provide the desired level of public safety service.

The sheriff's portion of the budget is debated every year. This year, county officials are still holding their collective breath to see whether Nugent brings them a budget that reduces spending $2 million from last year, the county administrator's recommendation.

• • •

Hamilton's plan is to get through the budget process this year, and then bring ideas and options for the future to the community and the commission beginning in January.

"This year, we've still been working in the reactive mode and not the proactive mode. But now I've been here long enough to get a feel for the place,'' Hamilton said. "We've been able to show a willingness to cut and to build credibility. Now it's time for us to go out and discuss this with the public.''

As for the difficulty of bringing up ideas such as raising taxes or fees in a year when two of the three commission seats are up for election, Hamilton said he will leave that up to the political process after residents have made it clear what they expect from their county.

"In an election year," he said, "obviously everyone will be interested in what the people are interested in.''

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

Without help from reserves, budget-cutting could get ugly in Hernando County 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 12:42pm]

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