Hernando County government is facing a $5.2 million deficit in its general fund for next year's budget. The general fund covers critical local services like law enforcement, the county jail, emergency management, animal services and code enforcement. Our libraries, parks, Cooperative Extension Office and myriad other basic programs and services are made possible for all our citizens by revenue raised from property taxes and fees into the general fund. It enables our county to remain a safe, comfortable and good place to live.
Since 2007, the Great Recession and Florida's real estate depression have contributed toward a decline in tax revenue to Hernando County government of more than $17 million. In response, the departments directly under control of the Board of County Commissioners have reduced their spending by 39 percent. The sheriff, clerk of the court, tax collector, property appraiser and supervisor of elections have also responded to the economic crisis by cutting spending on their programs.
Only one part of the general fund has remained basically intact as the rest of local government leaders have pinched pennies, eliminated positions and slashed spending.
It is the capital improvement fund dedicated to the construction of a new, stand-alone judicial center.
At the peak of the real estate boom, the Board of County Commissioners acquiesced to pleas from the leadership of the local judiciary and voted to create a special reserve account within the general fund using more than $12 million in local property tax revenue. It has remained robust while overall average spending in the general fund has declined by 20 percent. The board recently agreed to abandon the new judicial center project in the face of the economic reality gripping our county.
As a matter of basic fairness, that fund should immediately be reduced by a minimum of 20 percent to cover a little under half of next year's deficit. The resulting $2.7 million deficit will allow cuts in spending across the board to continue without devastating public safety or our quality of life. The remaining $10 million will be available for continued construction costs in the downtown courthouse as we convert former board departments into additional courtrooms for the judiciary.
The Board of County Commissioners set aside tens of millions of dollars in reserve accounts (while simultaneously cutting taxes 25 percent) from 2005 to 2008. It was prudent to save the taxpayers money then for a rainy day. We are now living through the third year of those rainy days. Our total general fund reserves currently remain at well over $27 million.
Don't let the Chicken Littles in the media or the nervous Nellies tell you we are running out of money. It just isn't true. Our general fund simply needs to be rebalanced at this time.
Jeff Stabins represents District 1 on the Hernando County Commission.