For months, the biggest unanswered question in balancing the county budget for next year has been: What will the sheriff do?
County officials have asked Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent to trim $2 million from his spending plan. If not, the county would have to cut deeper into the general fund.
On Tuesday, part of the question was answered when Nugent proposed in an e-mail to County Administrator David Hamilton that the commission allow his office to keep the $1.3 million he has saved in the current budget.
Normally, at the end of the fiscal year, Nugent would turn over to the county any unspent dollars. Nugent said he turned over about $600,000 last year. It was unclear Tuesday whether the county already was factoring any carry-over balances into its budget projections.
If Nugent is allowed to keep the $1.3 million, he said, he could save traffic deputies, the aviation deputy, a scaled-down version of the marine unit and the DARE anti-drug program. All were among the programs he said would have to end to come up with $2 million in cuts.
That would still leave more cuts if the county stands firm on the $2 million figure. With the other cost savings Nugent said he has already implemented, that means cutting $352,000 worth of programs.
The sheriff said he would lose substations, the cold-case detective, the intelligence detective, vice cars and the gang prevention program.
He points out in his e-mail to Hamilton that, if the county wanted to keep substations open, it would cost just $77,000.
Nugent told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday the carry forward fund is larger than the amount usually turned back to the county at the end of the year, but there were reasons for that.
For one, fuel costs were down from where they were budgeted. But there were also savings as Nugent let positions go unfilled so that he wouldn't have to lay off employees. That saved the six deputies who might have lost their jobs when he privatized the courthouse security system recently, he said.
"We were trying to look ahead and be very conservative,'' he said.
Under Nugent's proposal, he would keep one non-sworn and eight sworn employees in the current traffic unit. He would keep the one aviation deputy and two marine deputies. Marine deputies would work half-time on the water in order to save $55,000 in workers' compensation costs.
A vice detective, two community policing deputies, the crime prevention program and four DARE deputies would also keep their positions.
"The commission doesn't have to grant us the carry forward, but we're going to ask them to do this to carry us through this budget crunch,'' Nugent said.
"Maybe it delays the inevitable,'' but he said the move would give his department time to come up with deeper cuts next year if revenue does not improve.
Nugent said he thinks the plan is an attractive one for the commission because it will take some of the heat off and save popular and needed programs.
Hamilton could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
More discussion on the sheriff's budget and a full discussion of the county's financial position are expected on Thursday at the first of two public hearings.
The hearing begins at 5:01 p.m. in the commission chambers at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main Street, Brooksville.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.