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Budget's surplus still shows flawed finances

We are luckier this time than last.

About this time last year, the Hernando County School Board found out it might be $5.9-million short in its operating budget. After an appropriate period of hand-wringing and finger-pointing that eventually evolved into shoulder-shrugging, the board implemented a series of budget cuts because no one knew for sure if a multimillion-dollar budgeting error had been made.

Several months later, the financial crisis was declared a noncrisis and then-superintendent John Sanders confidently announced there never was a deficit. Of course, there would have been almost a $2-million shortfall if the board hadn't ordered the cutbacks, but the bottom line is that the books were balanced at the end of the fiscal year.

Who says uncertainty doesn't have its benefits?

This year, there's another multimillion-dollar budget discrepancy, and no one can explain this one either.

But no one seems too concerned about it because this time the mistake is recorded in black ink, not red.

At a workshop Tuesday afternoon, the board learned that the capital outlay budget _ the money set aside by law for constructing, improving and maintaining buildings _ holds $6-million. Last year, it was only $2-million.

Neither the School Board members, superintendent Wendy Tellone nor finance director Carol MacLeod could explain the $4-million windfall. In fact, none of the board members had even mentioned it until Times education reporter Robert King brought it to their attention.

The board proceeded to allocate the money for various projects, but did not exceed the $2-million originally budgeted. That is a frugal decision, at least until they double-check the math and get a handle on the budget cuts the state is about to dump on them. MacLeod did confirm this much: that the figure is accurate, and ventured a guess that there was more money in that fund last year than was indicated.

If that is true, even though this budget boo-boo appears it will have a happy ending, it underscores how far removed from reality the district's finances were last year, both in the plus and minus columns.

Once again, for the record

A Times editorial recently criticized County Administrator Paul McIntosh for refusing to enforce the Board of County Commission's policy that requires all computer-generated documents to be retained and copied into a file that is accessible for public view.

A majority of commissioners agreed the policy was worthwhile, and Chairman Chris Kingsley took action to make that desire clear. In a memo to McIntosh, Kingsley wrote, in part:

"We need to make sure that all public records . . . are kept and made available to the public. Anything that can even be remotely considered to be covered by the public records law should be included. I am speaking specifically to records, or potential records, that are being generated via e-mail . . . ," Kingsley wrote.

"Please make sure that your correspondence that is covered by this law is included in this process. At your next department head meeting, . . . include a primer on this issue and issue a directive that this law, and (the board's) policy, is followed carefully."

Kudos to Kingsley for reinforcing that policy so clearly and quickly. However, it will require vigilance to make sure all employees are following the policy. That goes for clerks the same as it does for commissioners and managers.

The current set-up requires each county employee who generates a document on a computer to go through the extra step of making a copy and sending it to the public records file. It should be the other way around. The originator of an e-mail should only have to go through the extra step of withholding the e-mail from the public records file, while all others go there automatically.

In addition, placing copies into the public file is only part of the board's policy. The commission also needs to ensure that no employee deletes e-mails received from outside sources, if that transmission "perpetuates, communicates or formalizes knowledge" about county business.

Kingsley's instruction to McIntosh is good for the present. But because three new commissioners have joined the board since the original policy was compiled in 1999, it would be a good idea for them to discuss it again, with an eye toward strengthening it and streamlining the process. Technology Services director Garry Allen can help them with that.

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