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AFTER CUTS, COUNTY BUDGET WRANGLING NEARS END

Tonight's session is the first of two public hearings on a spending plan and tax rate.

Months of scrutinizing every spending detail and squeezing what they could from county contracts are nearing an end for Hernando County staff and elected officials.

Tonight's first of two public hearings on the county's 2010 spending plan and tax rate will likely settle some of the final cuts and priorities for county operations in the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

County commissioners will consider the details of the proposed $354.9 million spending plan, including the $114.6 million general fund budget, as well as determine tax rates to fund those plans.

Two years ago, public hearings on the budget brought out crowds in the hundreds clamoring for tax relief. This year, Linda Hayward of the Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance insists that more cuts are needed.

"My message to the County Commission will be that we really don't believe that they have cut to the bone, as the county administrator has indicated,'' she said.

Those concerns might not find much traction among commissioners. Chairman Dave Russell said Tuesday the board has cut the tax rate and that property tax relief measures have lowered the costs to property owners even more.

"Under the current circumstances, keeping the millage rate at the current levels is reasonable,'' he said.

That's not to say, however, that the board will be deaf to taxpayers' concerns.

"The commissioners and the administrator haven't completely cornered the market on good ideas,'' he said.

Hayward suggests that the county should look at cutting the pay and benefits of the county's top officials. While she believes in a fair wage, she has problems with continuing to pay for county workers with good salaries and good benefits when there are people in the community who are struggling, who might not have jobs themselves and might have no benefits.

Hayward said she fears that county officials will move to raise the tax rate next year and "we'd really like them to cut to the bone before they do that.''

The proposed tax rate is the same as the last two years, but because of falling property values, the dismal economy and several changes designed to give taxpayers relief, the same rate will bring in far fewer dollars.

From the general fund alone, the county anticipates a $10 million revenue shortfall and has been scrambling to find ways to downsize and economize to offset that loss. Commissioners have made cuts in departments ranging from community relations to parks and recreation and from facilities maintenance to social services

In recent weeks, the county has reduced costs to the nearly break-even level, negotiating a new deal with the jail operator and agreeing to two work-week furloughs for non-union county workers in recent days.

Deputy county administrator Larry Jennings said late Wednesday that officials are still trying to get down to their spending bottom line to see what else might need to be discussed by commissioners tonight.

Russell noted that other communities have opted to raise their rate so that they would not lose as much revenue, but the Hernando commission did not consider following suit.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins urged those who were most hurt by the property value increase several years ago to look at the savings many would see on their tax bill now. As those values dropped and revenues fell, the county has been making the cuts it has needed to offset that reduced funding.

"I do not believe that we need additional millage reductions for this coming year,'' he said. "Conservative government makes slow and positive change. That's what conservative government means.''

Commissioner Rose Rocco said the board still has many unanswered questions about the budget. She said she wonders how needed cuts in payroll would happen with the employees' union rejecting furloughs, how much savings the county would see from the sheriff's budget, and how many employees will take the early leave package.

As for an increase in the tax rate, Rocco said that many property owners have seen a decrease in the tax bills and she was concerned that the county has already cut as far as it can and still protect core services.

"We're just going to have to make some good common sense decisions,'' she said. "I know we're not going to make everybody happy.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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County tax rate over time (in mills) Countywide rate includes millage for the general fund, public health, transportation trust fund and sensitive lands

Year Mills
2005 8.4204
2006 8.3106
2007 7.8106
2008 6.3431
2009 6.3431
2010 proposed 6.3431*
A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in appraised taxable property value. For the owner of a home appraised at $150,000 with the $50,000 homestead exemption, the proposed countywide tax rate would amount to a tax bill of $634.31 to support county services.

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Total full-time equivalent county employees

Year employees
2006 1,386
2007 1,426
2008 1,421
2009 1,341
2010 proposed 1,289

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IF YOU GO

Public hearing today

Today's hearing is at 5:01 p.m. in the commission chambers in Brooksville. The second and final public hearing is Sept. 24 at 5:01 p.m.

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