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Johnson says shame on critics in budget fight

TAMPA — Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson and his chief deputy say he's getting a raw deal on his budget bailout appeal.

Yes, he needs an extra $2.3-million to balance his books, roughly a third more than the spending plan he submitted in the spring. But to suggest that his office has been anything but transparent as it spends tax money is "unimaginable and shameful," Johnson said.

"Thomas Jefferson said, 'The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest,' " he wrote in an e-mail Saturday copied to a host of community leaders. "I take great pride in our honest efforts on behalf of voters."

Johnson, who leaves office on Jan. 6, surprised Hillsborough commissioners last week with his appeal for a cash infusion just two months after they approved his budget for the year. He has since withdrawn the request.

His chief deputy, Kathy Harris, told commissioners that the money was needed to cover unexpected costs from the November election.

But county budget officials said they could not sign off on the extra money because they had no underlying detail to justify it. Johnson had provided little information about how he planned to use his initial $6.7-million budget, approved in late September, let alone the extra money he says he needs now, they said.

That set off Johnson and Harris.

In her own e-mail to County Administrator Pat Bean on Saturday, Harris said the elections office provided plenty of detail. She included an itemized spreadsheet of office expense projections prepared in 2007 for last fiscal year and this fiscal year.

The county prepares its budget in two-year intervals but allows updates in off years.

Back in May, Johnson updated his budget request for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. But he didn't give the kind of detail his office gave a year earlier.

He provided only totals for payroll, operating and capital expenses, and those totals bore little resemblance to the earlier projections, said county budget director Eric Johnson.

"Those numbers changed so significantly that the line item detail from the year before was eventually of no value," he said.

That May, Harris rebuffed a request for more information from county budget manager Tom Fesler. She told him in an e-mail that the office was not required by Florida law to go into greater detail, in order to protect its independence.

Buddy Johnson would go on to claim in his re-election campaign that innovations within the office resulted in a 10 percent budget savings, a claim now debunked. He lost to Phyllis Busansky, who will have to reconcile the numbers.

Harris said Monday that Bean may be unaware of budget conversations Harris had with lower-level budget staff members, or of e-mails back and forth.

"To suggest that the budget office and the county administrator approved our budgets based on three numbers is simply not true," Harris said by e-mail Monday.

An independent audit is under way to determine whether the request for additional money is justified. That should answer many questions, Harris said.

It remains unclear why Johnson's spending projections were $2.3-million off target, or why the deficiency wasn't disclosed until the eve of his departure. He has blamed high voter turnout and the unanticipated costs of switching to new voting machines.

Bean said her office has no choice but to seek additional information before handing over so much money.

If one of her department directors sought to increase a budget by more than a third just two months after it was approved, that person would be under a lot of scrutiny, she said.

"That person would be in a place where they would not want to be," Bean said. "Even with all the new voting equipment and the high voter turnout, that's an awfully high number."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Johnson says shame on critics in budget fight 12/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 6:22pm]
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