Len Sossamon begins work as Hernando County administrator Monday and faces a challenging to-do list. He must guide county government through continued austerity while simultaneously building public faith in his subordinates' abilities to serve local residents.
Sossamon, 61, of Concord, N.C., will know how much immediate help he will get by the end of next week when most constitutional officers submit their proposed budgets for the next fiscal year. The overall county budget shortfall could reach $9.5 million because of a continued decline in property values and state required Medicaid payments. Out of the general fund, the constitutional officers — sheriff, elections supervisor, clerk of the circuit court, property appraiser and tax collector — account for nearly $47 million, more than triple the spending by departments under Sossamon and the County Commission.
Increasing the revenue side of the ledger appears remote. Commissioners already acknowledged a reluctance to increase the election-year tax rate and, in November, the public will be asked to establish a separate taxing district for mosquito spraying. Dollars and cents, however, must be balanced with restoring a sense of pride in civil service.
In some quarters, there is genuine distrust of local government to act in the public's best interests. Residents recently questioned the county giving temporary use of a park to organizers of a fledgling festival. Likewise, others complained about the activities at the county animal shelter that is under siege from continuing accusations portraying employees as borderline evil and inept.
Extinguishing the fire storm at Animal Services is an immediate challenge, but one that will not be completed until an audit by the clerk of the circuit court's staff is finished. The department has been under severe criticism after euthanizing a dog just minutes after it had been dropped off and before volunteers said they could attempt to find it a home.
The ongoing rhetoric escalated again last week with public criticism of the auditor as biased toward Animal Services. It's unfortunate and inaccurate. Auditor Peggy Caskey answers to Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai. She does not work for Sossamon nor the County Commission and to suggest Caskey would go easy so as not to embarrass the county shows a lack of understanding of the clerk's functions. Besides, one only has to read past audits by Nicolai's staff that have blistered county agencies to know they pull no punches.
Things will not be easy. Sossamon will bring new leadership to a government stressed by spreading staff so thin that the fire chief oversees the animal shelter and volunteers help manage neighborhood parks to keep them from closing. At the same time, the new administrator will answer to a commission that includes a lame duck, two commissioners facing re-election challenges, another who initially didn't want to hire him, and a chairman who champions continued spending cuts above all else.
Beyond managing the daily operations of government, Sossamon, to be successful, will have to forge productive relationships with the business community. Most importantly, he must help guide Hernando away from its over reliance on the home-building industry as its chief economic engine.
A more diverse tax base will help ensure a better long-term quality of life for all of Hernando County.