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Budget cuts hitting close to home // EXTENSION SERVICE, 4-H COULD LOSE

Hernando County officials are considering changing the way they give money to independent agencies, including those that sponsor 4-H programs, keep crime victims informed about their cases and maintain fire hydrants in Spring Hill.

At least one county commissioner promises to fight the idea, fearing it will mean budget cuts for agencies that "help real people."

"It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong," said Commissioner Pat Novy, a former 4-H leader. She said she fears the proposal will mean cuts in money given to the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service and could jeopardize the jobs of eight county residents.

County Administrator Chuck Hetrick wants to end an arrangement in which the county pays the salaries and benefits of 14 employees of outside agencies, yet the responsibility for hiring, firing and disciplining those workers rests elsewhere.

For example, two clerks who work for the state attorney's victim-witness assistance program each receive salaries of more than $17,000 from county coffers. Yet they are supervised by an employee of the state.

"Such a situation is of high concern to us in consideration of ever-changing labor laws and regulations and the liability exposures incurred by employers," Hetrick said in a Feb. 24 memo to county commissioners. "I suggest that it is not well-advised to continue this shared management."

All except two fire hydrant maintenance workers get paid from county property-tax dollars. The fire hydrant workers receive their salaries from the investment proceeds of a fee charged years ago to Spring Hill residents.

Hetrick wants to negotiate contracts with the agencies that give them a set amount of money in exchange for services to the county. It would also make the agencies responsible for their employees, removing the county as employer.

Though Hetrick did not specifically say the change would translate into less money, his memo mentions the current arrangement being a problem in light of "limited and declining (county) revenues."

Any budget matters, he said, will be for commissioners to decide this summer. Two years ago, there were rumblings that the extension service was being targeted in an effort to save money, but commissioners chose not to explore the option after getting letters and calls from constituents.

If the county changes its system, the extension service would be the most affected, with eight employees now receiving part or all of their salaries from the county.

The county now pays $229,000 in salaries to the group, which sponsors 4-H clubs, a master gardeners program aimed at water conservation and a home economics assistance program. About $371,840 comes from the state and federal governments.

Last year, more than 5,133 children and teenagers participated in 4-H and other extension-sponsored activities. Extension agents also provided educational programs to 451 commercial and part-time farmers and 88 nursery operators. A horticulture agent answered 15,000 horticulture questions, either by telephone or in person.

"Our programs and activities have been well-attended," said Wayne Odegaard, the extension service's director.

He said the county could have had more control over the county-paid employees, but Hetrick last year opted to give that to the state. Odegaard said state officials now handle paperwork concerning leave time and other administrative matters.

Commissioners Bobbi Mills and Nancy Robinson said they would have to hear more about Hetrick's proposal before making up their minds. However, Robinson said she would oppose any proposal that would harm 4-H programs.

"That would be a real problem for me," she said. "There are a lot of children participating and doing a lot of healthy things."

Mills, who last month voted with Commissioner Paul Sullivan against giving Odegaard $22,000 for a 15-passenger van, said she thinks the county should have control over all workers on its payroll.

"We have no say over what they do, whether they do it right or wrong," she said.


Hernando County has budgeted full or partial salaries for the following employees of independent agencies for 1996-97:

University of Florida

Cooperative Extension Service

Director and agent Wayne Odegaard: $15,518

4-H agent William E. Hill Jr.: $11,865

Urban horticulture agent Klaus Geyer: $30,506

Executive secretary Marlene Budowski: $26,968

4-H program assistant Margaret Jean Gist: $22,126

Secretary II J. Suzanne Williams: $17,116

Secretary I/receptionist Karin Clark: $15,649

Home economics program leader Donna Peacock: $17,273

Victim-Witness Assistance Office

Clerk Katherine Brass: $17,865

Clerk Kelly Fillmore: $17,450

Guardian Ad Litem program

Secretary (newly created in 1996): $15,246

Nature Coast Soil and Water Conservation District

Secretary Terry W. Carroll: $9,825

Spring Hill Fire Hydrant Maintenance District

Two positions at $15,517; one position is vacant. (Note: These two positions are paid for with assessments collected from the district, not general-fund tax money.)