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As belts tighten, irritation flows

Property Appraiser Ron Schultz's ears should have been burning Wednesday afternoon as the County Commission held its budget workshop.

Thanks to Schultz's plan to spend $400,000 on new office furniture for the soon-to-be-built Stovall Building, commissioners said, other projects will have to go without funding in next year's $133-million county budget.

A fund to restore the Tsala Apopka lake chain will go without $125,000 next year, although commissioners hope to put $250,000 toward the effort the following year.

The Lecanto Senior Center expansion will have to be phased over two years to save about $185,000 next year, County Administrator Richard Wesch said. Handicap-accessible bathrooms and a computer lab will be added this coming year, but an exercise room will be delayed until the following year.

"The need far exceeds the resources, and yes, you have to make some very difficult cuts," Wesch said.

Commissioners grew frustrated that Schultz could raise his budget about 31 percent _ from $2.2-million this year to $2.9-million next year _ and they had no choice but to fund it.

"A 31 percent increase, frankly, is offensive," commission Chairman Jim Fowler said.

"Where is the accountability to the people who pay the bills, the taxpayers?" he asked. "That's what's offensive to me."

"A 31.3 percent increase when we're trying to work with 4 percent (budget increase) for our needs _ there seems to be no limit," Commissioner Josh Wooten added. "If we have to tighten our belt, other people should have to tighten their belts."

Schultz wasn't at the budget workshop to justify the furniture costs to commissioners, and in a way, he didn't need to be. The property appraiser's budget is reviewed and approved by the state Department of Revenue. Commissioners must fund it, regardless of whether they approve of the expenses.

The $400,000 covers new furniture in the Stovall Building for both the property appraiser and the tax collector, chief deputy property appraiser Melanie Hensley said.

The particle board workstations in the property appraiser's courthouse office are too large to fit in the proposed Stovall Building, Hensley said. Some of the workstations and other pieces of decade-old furniture are falling apart now, she added.

"(The County Commission) told us when the Stovall project started that we were responsible for our own furniture," Hensley told the Times. "They knew it was going in our budget. It was not a surprise, or it shouldn't have been."

The Department of Revenue has suggested cuts in the property appraiser's budget, including removing $17,000 for new photocopiers in the Stovall Building, Hensley said. The budget will be closer to $2.7-million, she said.

Every year, commissioners complain about funding a property appraiser's budget in which they had no say. This year, they also talked about ways to take control of the situation.

Commissioners said they should prepare their preliminary budget before the property appraiser, so they can prioritize their projects before the property appraiser makes his funding request.

"We need to know what our needs are, what our priorities are and look at the big picture," Commissioner Gary Bartell said. "I'm going to go with water quality over furniture."

Commissioners also want to make sure Schultz spends the $510,500 budgeted as "nonoperating expenses" on furniture and other appropriate expenses. To make sure, they plan to put those dollars in a special contingency fund, and the property appraiser would have to submit budget transfer papers explaining the expense before spending any of the dollars.

Since the County Commission pays for about 91 percent of Schultz's budget, the special contingency fund would have about $464,100 in it, management and budget director Cathy Taylor said.

"We believe that is a prudent course of action so we can track how those monies are spent," Wesch said.

_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or