Just two hours into a day-long budget workshop Tuesday morning, and Hernando commissioners learned the grim news — they're aiming too low.
A projected $5.2 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 had been based on a presumption that the county's property values would decline about 5 percent. Hernando property appraiser Alvin Mazourek, however, indicated that was too optimistic. Values are likely to fall at least 8.4 percent, he told commissioners, and if the Value Adjustment Board rules today in favor of property owners challenging their assessments, the total tax roll decline will be 10 percent. It would be a fourth consecutive year of double digit declines in the tax rolls.
It is deflating data exacerbating an already difficult budget cycle that will require strong leadership from the commission and constitutional officers to resolve.
Even before Mazourek's presentation, staff recommendations included:
• Shuttering five parks and closing significant portions of two others. The athletic fields at Ernie Wever Park would be abandoned, Stewy's Skate Park at Pioneer Park would shut down and Linda Pedersen Park would open three or four times a year for special events.
• Fewer materials to borrow at Hernando's libraries, fewer computers to access and longer lines to get service from a librarian.
• Ending operations at the cannery.
• Laying off 11 people and eliminating three dozen budgeted positions, some vacant.
And that's only part of it. The recommendations comprise just $2.2 million in reductions. The county wants the constitutional officers to devise $2.4 million in cuts. And, before Mazourek's appearance, the commission still had to identify another $500,000 in savings. Now, a more realistic number will be $3 million.
For the most part, raising fees or increasing the tax rate is out, commissioners and staff said, because nearly 30 percent of the county is considered housing distressed, meaning at least half their income is eaten up by housing costs. The proposed budget cuts are particularly deep for the coming year because of three years of previous reductions and because the commission must wean itself from using reserves and one-time revenue sources to balance its ledgers.
It is early in the budget discussions and commissioners, to their credit, indicated a willingness to be flexible. Commissioner Wayne Dukes, for instance, said a parking fee for the Suncoast Trail was logical and said the county could seek nonprofit partners to keep the cannery and some community parks open. Commissioner David Russell suggested, if enabling legislation in Tallahassee is approved, that commissioners consider a pay cut. Even so, those are minor cost-savings along with the staff's plan for fewer cell phones, no reimbursement for lunch at conferences and less tidy offices to stretch custodial expenses.
Balancing a budget that suddenly has a deficit one-third larger than expected will require more than just cluttered wastebaskets and closed parks. Innovative thinking is imperative. Commissioners must ensure the cuts are fair and they must try to minimize the resulting decline in Hernando's quality of life attributes.