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Flip-flopping is no way to plan Hernando County's budget

Hernando commissioners ignored Karen Nicolai.

Good for them.

At least they are consistent. They frequently ignore their administrator, David Hamilton, too.

Nicolai is clerk of the circuit court and county clerk, which makes her the chief financial officer for county government. Last week, she summoned commissioners individually to the Brooksville law office of Tom Hogan.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins volunteered that he presumed Hogan would be acting as a downtown businessman/attorney and the meeting would entail a pitch about the importance of keeping county government and circuit court operations in the heart of Brooksville.

Instead, as Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt detailed, the session turned into a gripe from Nicolai about the lack of long-term fiscal planning by county government and what commissioners took to be a subtle pitch to ditch Hamilton as he nears his three-year anniversary as county administrator.

The commissioners responded in writing. Days later, they gave Hamilton high scores on his annual evaluation and said he exceeded expectations.

Smart. Hamilton has given commissioners no reason to doubt their faith in his abilities.

Nicolai said later she didn't intend for her message to be anti-Hamilton.

"I told them, 'Just figure out what you can do to downsize government.' I gave them no ideas of where because I don't know and that's not what I'm elected to do. But, they haven't come to any kind of consensus and each of them is going to have to give up some pet projects."

Maybe she hinted that Hamilton is a pet project.

But, why would there be a supposition that commissioners will pay heed to Nicolai when they frequently ignore similar financial advice from Hamilton and his staff?

Let's see, commissioners declined to act on planned youth sports fees even though the leagues acquiesced to the charges. Instead, the board took $115,000 in interest from a capital account and demanded a matching budget cut that turned out to be the unceremonious dumping of 33-year parks employee Pat Fagan from his management position.

The league fees flip-flop, Nicolai said, "is part of the frustration. Every week they're doing something different. There's no real analysis. It should be handled once a year. There should be a good (budget) plan voted up or down."

No argument here.

But, the same board refused recommended salary adjustments for top personnel even though it meant a $9,000 savings because they didn't want to penalize their budget chief or industrial recruiter while rewarding recently promoted women.

More than a year earlier, the board — minus Commissioner Wayne Dukes, who won election in November — declined other personnel recommendations from Hamilton as part of a reorganization tied to the departure of the deputy administrator. Again, the commission's motive was to spare budget chief George Zoettlein.

They've twice refused a recommendation to consider a gasoline tax increase to help maintain roads and balked at a separate taxing district for law enforcement. They show no stomach for closing the cannery, but were twice bailed out of making that decision by the generosity of an anonymous donor.

Most notably, Hamilton's repeated warnings to forgo future raids of reserve accounts are agreed to in theory by most commissioners, but then forgotten in practice. Stabins, in fact, champions using capital money once set aside for a judicial center as a way to soften the projected $5 million budget shortfall expected between now and Oct. 1.

Nicolai might as well have told commissioners, "You need to instruct your boss to waste his time preparing an elaborate spending plan that you guys can toss in the trash."

There have been attempts to foster a long-term vision, but it is interrupted by short-term political considerations. There is frequent flip-flopping and finger-in-the-wind governing from individual commissioners; demands for tax reductions without identified spending cuts; and yes, we agree with Nicolai, an overreliance on using reserves to balance the budget.

What it means is that the Hernando Commission has become accustomed to crisis management. So, what it doesn't need is a constitutional officer trying to create another crisis by pushing an unwarranted and unwelcome change in the administrator's office.

Flip-flopping is no way to plan Hernando County's budget 03/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 5, 2011 11:22am]
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