A proposal to consolidate most of the functions of Hernando's constitutional officers under the authority of the County Commission is an unworkable idea that smacks of political hardball and, if pursued, is likely to trigger expensive litigation. Tax Collector Juanita Sikes already labeled the plan illegal.
She was responding to the recent suggestion from Commissioner David Russell that the county consider taking over the duties of the tax collector, property appraiser, clerk, and supervisor of elections. It is ambitious, but unrealistic, particularly considering the current commission's inability to solve, by comparison, much more mundane issues of mosquito spraying, maintaining the Little Rock Cannery and keeping parks open.
Give credit to Russell for trying innovative thinking, but to suggest this commission collectively could do a better and more efficient job than the current incumbents of Tax Collector Sikes, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek, Clerk Karen Nicolai and Elections Supervisor Annie Williams is farfetched at best. And, let's face it, Russell may have hatched this notion with ulterior motives. He could be seeking leverage on any number of issues including: Additional spending cuts from the constitutional officers; quieting Williams' pitch for more storage space; silencing Mazourek's suggestion that the commission raise the property tax rate; stifling Nicolai's critical audits of county operations; or to obtain acquiescence on future considerations of some unpublicized issue.
Russell made his pitch in June to the commission and again to an ad hoc group of Hernando Chamber of Commerce representatives that also includes Commissioner John Druzbick. The panel is studying a smaller scale plan to try to avoid duplication of support services. That group should continue on its mission and not be distracted by Russell's more grandiose visions of nearly all local government functions — absent law enforcement — answering to five commissioners.
Russell has since retreated from his original suggestion and now thinks some constitutional offices could merge, but remain independent from the commission.
Certainly, there is room for the commission and constitutional officers to share functions with human resources, purchasing, fleet management and computer technology at the top of the list. In that regard, talks shouldn't exclude the Sheriff's Office since the sheriff and the commission are the two biggest county government employers and operate the largest fleets of vehicles.
Russell's idea also is problematic in that it fails to ensure large-scale cost savings. Take the elections office, for example, where an elected constitutional officer, Williams, is answerable to the public. New York state has the same model that Russell advocates — local county legislatures overseeing the elections offices and their budgets. But, instead of a single, publicly elected supervisor, each major party appoints a full-time employee, known as an elections commissioner, to share running the day-to-day operations of the office and to minimize partisan influences. And, counties the size of Hernando are allowed to have four elections commissioners, two Democrats and two Republican, if they so choose. In other words, impartiality requires the counties to add people to the payroll.
Over the next several months, the Hernando County Commission must adopt a balanced budget that right now needs $4 million worth of reconciliations, assume control of the disbanding Spring Hill Fire Rescue District and finish a multimillion-dollar dredge of the Hernando Beach channel. Expecting a historic government consolidation plan to be ready for voters' consideration during the presidential primary in early 2012 is impractical. Russell should forgo this idea and focus his attention on more pressing matters at hand.